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TODAY'S PAPER

Suffolk lawmakers eye strictures on asset forfeiture spending

They’re at it again in Suffolk, over transparency and accountability in the use of asset forfeiture funds.

It’s been a pull and push, dating to the early 1990s when Suffolk County legislators — angered over use of the funds for a gold watch for an employee’s retirement and other expenses — demanded a public accounting of such money and how it was spent.

On Thursday, county lawmakers...

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They’re at it again in Suffolk, over transparency and accountability in the use of asset forfeiture funds.

It’s been a pull and push, dating to the early 1990s when Suffolk County legislators — angered over use of the funds for a gold watch for an employee’s retirement and other expenses — demanded a public accounting of such money and how it was spent.

On Thursday, county lawmakers are slated to consider a measure that would tighten the use of forfeiture funds and — for the first time in memory — require legislative approval for some of that spending.

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The catalyst for the bill were news reports about District Attorney Thomas Spota using asset forfeiture funds for bonuses for some of his staff. Spota, who resigned after his indictment on federal obstruction of justice and witnessing tampering charges, has said the bonuses were legal. Spota has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.

In 1992, James Catterson Jr., then Suffolk district attorney, ended up bowing to pressure from lawmakers — who had criticized him for using asset forfeiture as secret “slush funds.”

Catterson agreed to make public what was in the fund, and to identify the assets seized from criminals.

But Catterson also got something big in return: Acknowledgment that he would retain control over the fund — and that, per state and federal law, he would have wide discretion over how to use it.

By 2004, and with Catterson’s successor, Spota, in office, the legislature’s zeal for transparency cooled.

In June of that year, lawmakers passed a measure freeing the county comptroller from having to audit asset forfeiture funds in the police department and in the probation, sheriffs and district attorney’s offices.

The justification was that dumping the annual reviews would free the Comptroller’s office to concentrate on other things, such as auditing outside contractors and keeping an eye on county budgeting practices.

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Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who had a contentious relationship with Spota, vetoed the measure. (In 2011, Levy decided not to seek a third term, under an agreement with Spota’s office that never has been made public.)

“I thought it was a bad idea,” Levy said in an interview Wednesday. “I thought there needed to be transparency on how that money was spent.”

But the legislature, by a wide margin and in a bipartisan vote, overturned the veto.

Earlier this year, however, Suffolk lawmakers went in the opposite direction, reinstating comptroller audits every other year. But after news reports about Spota’s use of asset forfeiture money to fund staff bonuses, Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) decided more stringent measures were needed,

Which way will the legislature go this time around?