Federal auditors on Thursday criticized the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security (DSHS) for improperly spending over $110,000 on catering and banquet tickets with forfeiture funds. The money spent came from equitable sharing, a federal forfeiture program partially revitalized by the U.S. Attorney General, which allows local and state law enforcement agencies to seize and keep private property, even if the owner was never criminally charged or convicted. Participating state agencies can then reap up to 80 percent of the proceeds.
Conducted by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice, the audit identified 17 invoices for catering, a luncheon, banquet tickets and retail food that were all “unallowable.” Under federal guidelines, equitable sharing money “may not be used to pay for food and beverages,” except for “local operations,” like hurricane relief. Additionally, agencies must use those funds “prudently and in such a manner as to avoid any appearance of extravagance, waste, or impropriety.” Those guidelines even explicitly state that social event tickets are an example of improper “extravagant expenditures.”
According to auditors, the DSHS Controller claimed “that he did not know these expenditures were unallowable,” though the guidelines are publically accessible online. But in response to the audit, the DSHS said it will fully reimburse the federal government for the $112,614 officials wrongly spent.
Equitable sharing is rife with abuses and questionable purchases. Police and prosecutors across the country have used equitable sharing money on “new and used sports and luxury cars,” a GoCart, trips to a conference at a ski resort, and even a face-painting clown. Nationwide, law enforcement spent almost $2.5 billion in equitable sharing from 2008 to 2014, according to The Washington Post. In 81 percent of those cases, “no indictment was filed.”
Earlier this year, state Rep. Martin Daniel introduced a bill that would have abolished civil forfeiture altogether and strictly curtailed participation in equitable sharing by Tennessee law enforcement agencies. But after intense lobbying by law enforcement, the bill was killed.