Chris Berendt Staff Writer
September 12, 2013
A massive, multi-agency drug investigation in 2011 that produced a decent chunk of seized asset funding due to the work of Sampson County Sheriff’s authorities is being put back into the department’s equipment needs in the hope similar awards might be realized.
The Sampson Board of Commissioners approved requests by Sheriff Jimmy Thornton earlier this week to utilize unanticipated seized asset funds and substance abuse tax funds for the purchase of equipment to meet current department needs, while also avoiding future budget expenditures.
The Sheriff’s Office was recently awarded $279,000 as its share of seized asset funding for the department’s role in a multi-agency drug operation. Thornton requested to utilize $188,670 of the proceeds, a large portion of which would pay for two vehicles with equipment, for the Special Investigations Division and the Criminal Interdiction Team, a $70,000 expense cut from the 2013-14 budget.
“During the past budget cycles, the Sheriff’s Office has withheld equipment requests for the agency. We’ve been fortunate to have just received a one-time allotment of seized asset funding that could accommodate needed equipment and would save the Sampson County taxpayers money,” the sheriff stated. “Most importantly, money seized from drug dealers would be used to enhance drug enforcement operations.”
He submitted requests that he said would not only accommodate immediate needs but also address future needs, saving that money from being expended out of county coffers in future budgets.
Board of Commissioners chairman Billy Lockamy praised Thornton and his department for their diligent efforts, which have not only gained a significant amount of funds for the county but “earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues.”
“We applaud the fine work he has done in this,” said Lockamy.”The work the Sheriff’s Department is doing every day is commendable. This is a real big bust.”
Thornton said he appreciated the accolades, but said his employees were most deserving of them.
“There were many, many hours that were expended into that operation. It just didn’t happen in March of 2011,” Thornton said. “It probably ran over a span of about 18 months. It was multiple states where those individuals were transporting and commuting back and forth.”
Thornton went to Knoxville, Tenn., recently as part of the award distribution to get Sampson’s take of the total seizure, which was in excess of $4 million. Of that, the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office netted $279.000, an award that made it the third-highest recipient of the 19 agencies, with just the Wilmington Police Department, at $414,000, and the N.C. Highway Patrol, at $349,000, receiving more.
Of the 19 agencies, Sheriff’s Offices in Duplin, Onslow and Cumberland counties, as well as Police Departments in Fayetteville, Jacksonville and Leland were among the “multitude of agencies” involved, with the lion’s share being from eastern North Carolina, Thornton noted. The disbursement of the funds were challenged in court, the primary reason for the delay in the award.
“In the end, the money did have to be forfeited and turned over to the federal government. We would have probably gotten an additional $35,000 had the federal government not been in such bad shape. We got cut 10 percent off our initial award,” Thornton said, adding, “but still, $279,000 is still a pretty good take. I’ll take it any day.”
Among the other purchases from the seized assets, the Sheriff’s Office will buy radar units, at a cost of $47,500; replacement equipment for a burned vehicle, at $15,000; a crime scene vehicle (surplus ambulance retrofitted) and equipment, for $6,700; a portable Drug ID unit, at $15,000; console inserts and emergency lighting for three SUVs, at $14,800; propane conversion for seven more vehicles, at $14,000; and a lapel microphone for portable radios, a cost of $5,670.
The Sheriff’s Office also received an allocation of N.C. Substance Abuse Tax funding and similarly requested to expend $41,505 of those funds to enhance drug enforcement operations.
The purchases would include Pen-Link software, at $23,700; an interactive whiteboard (Smartboard), at $7,600; evidence incinerator, for $7,200; a laptop computer, for $1,200; as well as bulk storage lockers, a color laser printer and DVD duplicator, all coming in at a total of about $1,800.
“We’ve been very fortunate over the last 11 years to be a part of a lot of seizures, in cash and in property,” said Thornton. “Certainly we have not gotten 100 percent of that. it has varied anywhere from 8 and 9 percent to as much as 80 percent to whatever that seizure was valued at. I’ve got a very dedicated group of employees on all levels who have really benefited us, especially the people of this county.”
Seized assets can only be used for items beneficial to the Sheriff’s Office and cannot be used to supplant items in the sheriff’s budget, such as vehicles, salaries and other normally-purchased equipment, county manager Ed Causey said. The seized assets would act to save the county money and, while it would not offset anything in the current budget, Causey said, it could work to save county money in future budgets, as Thornton said.
“In looking at the request, it does appear to me that some of these things probably would recycle back to the budget if we did not have the available seized assets,” Causey said. “It looks like they have tried to benefit the county to some extent with this.”
Commissioner Albert Kirby inquired as to the legal authority or statute that governed the utilization of seized asset monies. Thornton said federal law dictated the funds be used by the Sheriff’s Office for items not already in the budget. Finance officer David Clack concurred.
“I have no problem at all that you keep the money,” said Kirby. “I just want to make sure.”
“Well it certainly helps you out as a commissioner when it comes to not having funds for items,” said Thornton. “I’m trying to help you out big time. I’m asking for it now, because I’ve not been able to ask for it the past several years, Mr. Kirby. In good conscience I didn’t feel I had to ask.”
The board unanimously approved the request.
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland again praised Thornton and his department, and said approving the equipment request would allow the Sheriff’s Office to continue its good work.
“That’s how they can do things like this, is having that advanced technology available to them, going along with their good training,” Strickland said. “We all, as Sampson County citizens, recognize what kind of job is being done by your department. The Sheriff’s Department has done a good job and the county citizens know this.”
“We ask that you continue to do it,” Kirby added. “Hopefully the fellas that are on the wrong side of the tracks, we kind of hope they keep coming through with $4.5 million because you’re gonna keep on busting them.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.