Audit: Drug patrol team misused funds

Federal agency says I-70 drug patrol improperly spent $313,000

HANCOCK COUNTY — A federal audit accuses leaders of a multi-agency drug patrol team of misusing dollars seized from dealers during traffic stops — including by paying a portion of the salary of the Hancock County sheriff’s deputy who serves as the team’s coordinator.

An audit conducted by the United States Department of Justice, conducted during the last year and released in late February, states those who oversee the Proactive Criminal Enforcement, or PACE, team misspent some $313,000 in funds – including $5,200 used to bolster the salary of the local deputy who serves as the PACE team coordinator.

Local officials say they are working with their federal counterparts to ensure all issues uncovered in the audit are properly corrected; some of the mistakes highlighted in the report have already been fixed, officials said.

The PACE team was created in 2009 when former Hancock County Sheriff Bud Gray brought together officers from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, Greenfield Police Department, Henry County Sheriff’s Department and Richmond Police Department to form a multi-agency task force to patrol Interstate 70 from Marion County to the Ohio line, looking for drug traffickers.

The team was originally funded by a federal grant; but the team stopped collecting those dollars in 2012 once it was considered self-sufficient thanks to federal and state forfeiture laws that allow police to confiscate and sell property seized from suspects and use the profit for law enforcement activities.

But strict guidelines dictate how funds seized from investigations can be used. For example, PACE leaders can use profits selling criminals’ assets to purchase new equipment for team members, but they cannot pay a team member’s salary with those funds.

In the audit, federal leaders state those overseeing the PACE team – specifically Henry County officials who had taken on the task of keeping the official records for the team – “did not fully comply with” federal guidelines.

The audit report says $313,052 related to PACE team funds were misspent. That includes $145,545 in equipment purchases gifted to other law enforcement agencies; $40,875 and $121,432 in pay and benefits for officers in the Henry County Sheriff’s Department and Richmond Police Department, respectively; and a $5,200 stipend for Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Nick Ernstes, who has supervised the PACE team since 2014.

The Office of the Inspector General and the criminal division of the Department of Justice have asked leaders of each agency involved with the PACE team (except for the Greenfield Police Department, which auditors found complied with federal guidelines, the report states) to provide documentation showing each mistake has been corrected.

Hancock County Sheriff’s Maj. Brad Burkhart said county leaders realized they’d made a clerical error in how Ernstes was paid well before federal auditors came knocking.

In 2014, when Ernstes was promoted to PACE team coordinator, the department increased his pay in the same way it would any other officer to takes on a supervisory role, Burkhart said. Police often refer to such increases as “rank pay,” he said.

The department added $2,600 to Ernstes salary in 2014 and 2015; but those funds were mistakenly taken from dollars collected by the PACE team. Burkhart said he realized the mistake toward the end of the 2015 and corrected it for the 2016 budget. Those monies now come from the county general fund, he said.

Paperwork showing the error was corrected has been sent to the Department of Justice, Burkhart said; he’s now waiting to hear back to make sure the action was considered enough to remedy the error.

Henry County Sheriff Richard McCorkle said he disagrees with the Department Justice implication that funds were misused: no one has accused the departments of purchasing things they should not have purchased; rather the wrong bank account was used to do the buying, he said.

Additionally, McCorkle said the PACE team received improper guidance from the federal government on how funds could be spent with respect to salary and equipment costs. The note that Henry County officials penned to the Department of Justice in response to the audit — a 20-page rebuttal, though only four pages were released to the public — states that task force officers “inquired and received verbal and written guidance” from federal personnel about certain expenditure. Now, Henry County, like Hancock County, is waiting for feedback from the Department of Justice to ensure any mistake has been properly corrected.

Richmond Police Chief James Branum did not return requests for comment on this story; but Richmond’s city attorney, Andrew Sickmann, sent a letter to the Department of Justice that is included in the official audit report.

In the note, Sickmann said the police department disagrees with the Department of Justice’s assertion that funds were misused by its police department; but he added the city will comply with any further investigation.

Burkhart said he’s confident none of the PACE team’s members intended to go against federal guidelines.

“If I thought there was something going wrong, we wouldn’t be apart of it,” he said.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.