Suffolk County DA Used Forfeiture Funds for Bonuses Without County Approval

A New York District Attorney is in hot water for using forfeiture funds to pay staff bonuses without county board approval. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said that District Attorney Thomas Spota paid prosecutors $2.7 million in bonuses over the last five years. According to the Wall Street Journal, the three most recent payments resulted “in a nearly $900,000 hole in the county’s budget.” Documents obtained by the Journal show that seven payments to Spota’s prosecutors from 2012 to 2015 were reimbursed with forfeiture funds.

Spota had an ongoing dispute with Bellone over raises for his staff in recent years. In August 2014, at a meeting with county executive staffers, two witnesses said Spota demanded raises for his staff and that staffers would “rue the day” they did not give those raises. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Later that month, Mr. Spota sent a letter to the executive office questioning whether his office would have enough “incentive” to prosecute sales tax cases that bring revenue to the county if his prosecutors didn’t receive raises.

Spota’s dispute with the county executive highlights the perverse profit incentive that civil forfeiture creates. New York earned a C in the Institute for Justice report, Policing for Profit, in part due to 60 percent of forfeiture proceeds going to law enforcement. Across the country, some law enforcement agencies used these proceeds for items like margarita machines and a Zamboni. Spota’s office used them to simply pay themselves the salaries they desired.

Currently, seven states do not allow law enforcement to keep proceeds from civil forfeiture: Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia. New York should look to these states as examples and eliminate the profit incentive from civil forfeiture.

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