One year after Suffolk County adopted new oversights intended to increase transparency of asset forfeiture funds administered by the Police and Probation Departments and District Attorney’s and Sheriff’s offices, Legislators last night unanimously approved expanding the reporting requirements adopted in 2017 from annually to quarterly. This change comes after last fall’s discovery that former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota used $3.25 million in funding the County received through the confiscation and sale of assets once used to support illegal activities to pay staff bonuses within his office without legislative approval. The amendment, sponsored by Majority Leader Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) who also authored the 2017 bill requiring recipient agencies to report annually on asset forfeiture accounts, now requires those agencies to file details of asset forfeiture receipts and expenditures to the County Executive, County Comptroller and County Legislature by March 15th, June 15th, September 15th, and December 15th of each year.
Under law, asset forfeiture funds are considered “off budget” items that are not part of the County’s general operating budget and are held and expended at the discretion of law enforcement agencies in accordance with federal and state guidelines. However, very little about the funding and its uses have been publicly available. Bill supporters hope that the increased reporting requirement will shed light onto origins of these funds and ensure its use will be legal, ethical and able to withstand public scrutiny.
"This is an important step toward providing greater insight into the use of asset forfeiture funds," stated Deputy Presiding Officer Rob Calarco. "Quarterly reporting will increase transparency and ensure the funds are spent appropriately and to protect the public."
“After last year’s revelation that asset forfeiture funds were used for employee bonuses, it became obvious that even greater transparency was needed to reassure the public and its elected officials that the money was being used as the law intended,” said Legislator Hahn. “While I have full confidence that Suffolk County agencies and departments have and continue to use asset forfeiture funds legally, it is my hope that increased oversight will ensure that those uses conform to public expectation and fill a pressing public safety need.”
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). Suffolk County law had required the Comptroller to conduct annual reviews of asset forfeiture accounts until 2003, when the policy was changed to allow auditors the ability to focus on other County priorities, however, Legislator Hahn’s 2017 law empowered the comptroller to resume those audits biannually.
The bill now goes to County Executive Steve Bellone for his signature within the next thirty days.