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Feud over money rocks Narcotics Task Force


The future of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force comes down to one thing.

Money -- who is going to get it and who is going to control it.

Last week, the city of Westminster threatened to pull its one police officer out of the group if the county commissioners make good on their promise to shut the city out of all proceeds from the sale of goods seized by the task force during drug investigations.

The city, for more than four years, has taken half of those proceeds.

The county commissioners and the state's attorney are eager to keep the city involved in the four-agency task force. But they have said that, since the city is no longer willing to keep track of the drug group's finances, evidence and seized property, it no longer is entitled to such a large share of the money generated by the task force.

The controversy threatens to shake up the once cohesive law enforcement group and opens the possibility of a drug task force without the participation of the county's largest municipality.

"I feel strongly that the time has come for us to evaluate our options," said W. Benjamin Brown, Westminster's mayor and a candidate for county commissioner.

"But I also feel that we are certainly not backing away from strongly enforcing our drug laws, whether it is solely in Westminster with the cooperation of the drug task force or as part of the task force."

For almost 16 months, the task force has been the subject of a county-ordered audit that has produced tension between the county commissioners and State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman.

The audit -- and the political ill will it has generated among the task force's players -- has been blamed for Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo's decision to quit handling the drug group's money, evidence and seized property.

That decision, more than anything county auditors have said or done, is believed to be the reason for the latest round of discontent.

With Chief Leppo's participation, the task force was given pretty much free rein over half of the $15,000 to $20,000 it took in annually from property forfeiture and buybacks, while the city of Westminster was given the other half.

With the sheriff's department poised to take over where the Westminster chief left off, the county commissioners don't believe the city deserves to take its share anymore.

"That seems to be the last stone to be turned over," Commissioner Donald I. Dell said Friday. He said he favors putting forfeiture proceeds into a county-controlled fund that the force can tap to cover its expenses.

At a Task Force Advisory Board meeting Thursday, Mr. Dell floated the idea of providing liability insurance for the city officer in the task force in exchange for the cut of forfeiture proceeds. Mr. Hickman, who now advocates a county-controlled forfeiture fund and an annual county-approved task force budget, has proposed giving Westminster about 25 percent of forfeiture proceeds.

In the past, Mr. Hickman had argued against such a structure, saying that politics should have no part in a covert drug-fighting organization. Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III, the task force coordinator, said last week that making the task force ask for an annual budget would be wrong and "counterproductive."

"You have to extend a certain level of trust and expect a certain level of responsibility when it comes to a law enforcement group," Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Dell said he hoped the issue can be resolved, and that politics -- especially the wrangling among Westminster officials, Mr. Hickman and the county commissioners -- can make a quick exit from the task force picture.

Mr. Hickman declined to comment on Thursday's meetings, or on Mr. Dell's insurance proposal, instead saying that the details would come out at a Westminster City Council meeting at which Mr. Dell will officially discuss the issue with city officials.

If Westminster pulls out of the task force, it won't be the only change for the drug group.

In the wake of internal state police investigations into The Block raid in Baltimore, the top two drug officers in the state police -- who sat on the task force's advisory board -- have been reassigned. And July 1, the group was handed its third state police supervisor in two years.

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