Pubdate: Sun, 24 Oct 2004
Source: Tribune Review (Pittsburgh, PA)
Copyright: 2004 Tribune-Review Publishing Co.
Author: Daniel Reynolds, Tribune-Review
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)
Bookmark: (Corruption - United States)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Youth)


PITTSBURGH --Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.'s
office seized $3.3 million in cash and assets from suspected drug
dealers between 1998 and 2003, records show.

But exactly how the money bolstered the war on drugs is a

Under the state's Controlled Substance Forfeiture Act, prosecutors can
use drug forfeiture money to finance witness protection efforts,
bolster drug law enforcement or fund drug awareness programs. But the
public has no right to know how prosecutors use the money.

That's because the use of drug forfeiture proceeds is an exception to
the state's Right-to-Know laws.

"It's a ridiculous exception to the open records law," said Witold
"Vic" Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the
American Civil Liberties Union.

Questions about how Allegheny County dispenses the cash were raised
when Clerk of Courts George Matta announced he would use $3,750 in
drug forfeiture money to pay a childhood friend, Lionell Dudley, 52,
of Duquesne, to speak to athletes in a dozen Mon Valley schools about
choosing a college.

The expenditure drew criticism from a retired prosecutor, Joseph
Hopper, 72, of Moon, who supervised the drug forfeiture program under
Zappala's predecessor, Bob Colville.

A spokesman for Zappala defended the expenditure as a proper use of
drug forfeiture funds.

Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate said spending of
drug forfeiture funds was limited to drug enforcement and drug
awareness during his tenure from 1989 to 1995. Preate spent more than
a year in prison after a conviction for mail fraud in connection with
his 1994 campaign for governor.

"Drug forfeiture money is supposed to be used for drug law
enforcement. It's supposed to be used with the law-enforcement
operations and drug education," Preate said.

The revenue Zappala's office receives from drug forfeitures comes from
cash seized from suspected drug dealers and the sale of assets
purchased or used in connection with drug sales. Vehicles, cell
phones, boats, jewelry and weapons can be seized under those

State law says: "It shall be the responsibility of every county in
this Commonwealth to provide ... an annual audit of all forfeited
property and proceeds obtained under this section. The audit shall not
be made public but shall be submitted to the Office of the Attorney

Nils Frederickson, spokesman for the office of state Attorney General
Jerry Pappert, said state law "provides guidance" but no specifics
about using forfeited assets.

Zappala's office provided the Tribune-Review Media Service with a
summary of how it spent drug forfeiture money between 1998 and 2003.
Prosecutors in Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties did not
respond to requests for information.

Beaver County District Attorney Dale Foust said his office takes in
about $90,000 per year in drug forfeiture money, but he said state law
prohibits him from providing detailed reports about the money.

According to Zappala's report, most of the $3.3 million collected was
spent on investigators' salaries, grants to police departments,
witness protection and surveillance equipment.

The report states about $550,000 was spent on items identified as

Zappala's spokesman Mike Manko said the "other" category includes
spending on antidrug brochures and posters that target youths. He said
grants to community organizations are included in that category but
declined to identify the recipients.

"I know what heroin does to children. We've come up with different
schemes to reach these children. If that's a 'strained interpretation
of the act,' then I'm going to continue to do what I'm doing," Zappala

A North Hills group dedicated to fighting drug use among children
agreed with Zappala.

"I think it's extremely positive, anytime we can help direct our young
people in a positive way and help them keep themselves in school, then
we are fighting the battle against drugs," said Debbie Kehoe,
executive director of the Northern Area Alliance Against Highly
Addictive Drugs.

Kehoe's organization, which includes administrators from 12 school
districts in the North Hills, received $10,000 in drug forfeiture
funds last month from Zappala's office. Zappala's office announced the
grant, but such an announcement is the exception rather than the rule.

Since taking office in 1998, Zappala has taken an aggressive approach
to drug forfeitures.

In 1998-99, the office seized $261,375 in cash. By 2002-03, the office
took $816,437, records show.

In July 2000, Zappala created a district attorney's drug task force to
work with 96 police departments throughout the county.

Zappala's office spent $3.5 million over that five-year period,
including about $386,000 returned to local police departments that
participate in the task force. The office also distributes seized
items to various groups. In 2002-03, the office allowed local police
departments to use 10 seized vehicles for drug law enforcement and
donated 96 pieces of seized electronic equipment to Crisis Center
North, a nonprofit domestic violence counseling center.

"Since taking office, Steve made it a priority to return those assets
to the community," his spokesman, Manko, said. 
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