Plane purchase with seized drug money panned

Posted Sept. 30, 2008, at 9:34 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee say they will push for a law in January requiring legislative approval before state law enforcement agencies can spend money forfeited by drug dealers, a move triggered by Maine State Police recently purchasing a new airplane at a cost of $345,000.

“This committee has jurisdiction over the state police and I had not heard anything about this [purchase],” Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chairman of the panel, said Monday. “This is something the committee should have been involved with.”

The new plane, a Cessna 182, is expected to be delivered soon to the state police. It will replace one of two planes now used by the agency.

Diamond also sits on the Transportation Committee that shares jurisdiction over the state police budget and said that panel, to his knowledge, had not discussed the purchase. His criticism was echoed by Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, the lead GOP member of the Criminal Justice Committee.

“I knew nothing about this plane until I got a phone call from a member of the Appropriations Committee asking me what I knew about it,” he said. “This committee should have been consulted.”

Diamond said he will introduce legislation in January, if he is re-elected, that would require legislative approval of spending money seized from drug dealers. Often in drug cases both cash and assets are seized and forfeited. Law enforcement agencies involved with a case are often the beneficiaries of that cash or the cash from the sale of seized assets.

“That doesn’t mean there should not be oversight of that spending, “Diamond said.

Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the panel, said Tuesday he has told Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan the plane purchase should have gone through the regular budgeting process.

“I told her when she comes to us for a supplemental request next year I am going to tell her to go take a flight,” he said. “Yes, I am angry and upset about this.”

Gerzofsky is seeking a seat in the state Senate and said if he is elected he will support the effort to require legislative oversight of use of the forfeited assets fund.

Last week Jordan went before the Appropriations Committee to get a waiver for the budget order transferring the money for the plane from the seized assets account to the capital account for the State Police. The waiver affected only the timing of the money transfer, not the ability to spend the money.

Members of that panel asked Jordan whether she or the state police had discussed the use of the forfeiture money to buy the plane and she acknowledged there had been no consultation with lawmakers.

“I believe there was some discussion in the Transportation Committee about the age of the plane and its maintenance costs,” she told the panel.

Jordan defended the need for replacing one of the agency’s two aircraft. She said the 28-year-old Cessna needed a major engine overhaul, a new propeller and replacement of communications equipment that exceeded the $50,000 value of plane.

“I have some great concern that if we don’t take advantage of this now, take advantage of the drug forfeiture money now, very shortly we will have to ground the plane,” she said. “That will, of course, result in a significant decrease in revenue coming to the state and a decrease in our ability to conduct investigations.”

Jordan told lawmakers the two aircraft the state police have are used principally in speed enforcement details that generated more than $1.2 million in 2007. She said the aircraft are also used in investigations, like the recent arson in Milo, search and rescue operations and helping the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in its marijuana eradication efforts.

Criminal Justice Committee members say they do not doubt the importance of the new plane to the state police, they object to the way the aircraft was acquired.

“They very well may need the airplane,” Diamond said. “But I think in these economic times we have to very carefully look to see if that money is there to spend.”

He said the committee recognizes the drug forfeiture money needs to be used for law enforcement purposes. He said it is up to the Legislature to set the policy on how money is spent and replacing one of the two state police aircraft may not be its priority.

“I was fortunate enough to go up in one of the aircraft and they are a very effective enforcement tool,” Sykes said. “But, buying a new plane is something that should have been brought before the Criminal Justice Committee.”

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