Gouge questions task force money


The first independent audit of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force turned up no financial improprieties, but County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge is far from satisfied.

"This audit doesn't end the issue. I want to know if there's something we haven't found," the commissioner said yesterday after the audit -- more than six months in preparation -- was released.

"I'm not satisfied, not at all. I may be all wet, but why do people fight an audit tooth and nail when public money is involved?"

She said that, almost immediately after the commissioners asked for an audit of the task force, requests for financial records were routinely rebuffed.

"When we asked for records, they said they were locked up, or the person who has them was sick or that they had been destroyed," Ms. Gouge said from her home. "When they did give the records to us, they took off phone numbers and names. By doing that, you're making sure we can't call anybody on our own."

Ms. Gouge's comments yesterday are the first public signs of concern with the drug task force expressed by a county elected official. She said she has been worried about its methods and financial accountability for some time.

The audit was ordered, then canceled, then ordered again by the county commissioners this past spring after Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman requested $10,000 for radios for task force officers.

The commissioners were at first leery of fulfilling Mr. Hickman's request because they had been told by a person in the county law office that the drug group was sitting on a secret $50,000 fund.

No such stash was found in a preliminary audit in May, and the commissioners gave the task force the money for the radios.

Mr. Hickman did not return calls to his office and electronic pager last night.

Other than rent-free space in county-owned buildings, the task force receives little direct support from the county budget. Funding for the task force, made up of state police troopers, sheriff's deputies, Westminster police officers and an attorney from the state's attorney's office, comes in large part from cars and property seized in drug arrests.

While some of the property is forfeited to the group through the courts, the bulk of the property seized is "bought back" by the property owner. In such a deal, a person whose property is seized is given the opportunity to recover it for anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.

It is the buy-back program that has troubled Ms. Gouge, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union. In some publicized cases, the task force has seized a car in which a passenger was found with drugs, then forced the owner to buy it back or face the prospect of going to court to recover it.

"What happens to these cars? What happens to the money from these cars? Where's the documentation?" Ms. Gouge asked. "The citizens have the right to know how drug enforcement takes place. This buy-back, it's not right."

The audit, which covers the group's finances from July 1, 1991, to June 21, 1993, said the task force's checking and savings accounts were "found to be appropriate." The task force had a little more than $22,400 in those accounts on June 21.

The audit did, however, recommend that the task force begin to abide by an "informal" agreement whereby it would transfer any amount of money more than $20,000 to the county treasury. The agreement -- acknowledged in a March 1989 letter signed by Mr. Hickman -- has never been followed, the audit pointed out.

In his response to the auditor's findings, task force coordinator Barton F. Walker III said he was unaware of any such agreement, and that if one did exist, it applied only before the task force's reorganization in 1990.

He said the task force would discuss the possibility of entering such an agreement with the county.

"We will continue to use the appropriate measures to fight the war on drugs," he said. "We don't see any flaws in what we're doing."

Tim Hartman, the auditor who reviewed the task force's books, said yesterday that he would like to make periodic audits to "keep the lines of communication between the county and task force open."

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