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Legislators want say in drug money allocation

Posted May 23, 2010, at 7:19 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 8:54 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has received $1.1 million as the result of a federal law that distributes the assets seized in drug cases, but how to spend that extra cash is triggering a dispute between Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan and lawmakers who believe they should decide.

“It was a huge case,” Jordan said, “but it started out in Aroostook County with a small buy and then they worked it up the chain.”

She said the 2004 international, multistate case led to the seizure of millions of dollars in assets owned by the drug ring based in Canada. She said Maine’s share is only a fraction of the value of all the ring’s assets from a huge growing and distribution operation that used Maine as the conduit to other states.

“But, yes, it is large compared to the usual drug forfeiture cases we have had in Maine,” she said.

Jordan said she has met with some of her department staff, including Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney, to develop a “strategic plan” to allocate the money. Since the assets were seized under federal law, there are limits on how the money can be spent.

“For example, you can’t use it to supplant spending you are already doing,” Jordan said, “and it has to be law enforcement-related.”

She said one idea would be to use some of the money to pay for more of the prepaid envelopes for Mainers to mail their old or unused drugs to MDEA for disposal. She said the mailers are fast running out.

Several lawmakers were quick to respond to the news of the drug forfeiture funds by saying the Legislature must be part of any decision-making process, and some raised the possibility that a decision on the allocation should wait for the next Legislature.

Jordan’s proposal in the fall of 2008 to trade in a then-28-year-old state police aircraft and use drug forfeiture money for the difference to buy a new airplane still rankles many lawmakers. After harsh criticism from members of both parties on both the Appropriations Committee and the Criminal Justice Committee, the idea was dropped.

“This is going to be a partnership,” said state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee. He was House chairman in 2008 and vowed Jordan would not have a “slush fund” to spend on her “pet projects,” but he was more circumspect on this proposal.

“We will hold a public hearing to hear from the commissioner, and I am sure committee members will have their own suggestions,” he said.

State Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, also serves on that panel. He said the first he had heard about the funds was from a reporter. He said committee members had to cut a lot of programs as part of the budget cuts earlier this year, and he is sure there will be efforts to use the drug forfeiture money for some of those programs.

“There are things I am sure that will be the priority of the committee,” he said.

Gerzofsky said the panel had wanted to provide additional resources for the computer crimes unit of the state police and to work on the backlog of sex offender registry cases. He said the committee had to make some “painful” decisions and the additional resources could be a help in restoring cuts.

“We tried to restore, which we couldn’t fully, some of the positions back in the computer crimes unit which deals with child pornography,” said state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He said that would certainly be a priority for him.

“We want to hear what the committee of jurisdiction recommends,” he said. “We want a thorough discussion of how these additional funds should be spent.”

The panel’s co-chair, state Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, agrees. She said the budget-writing committee is scheduled to meet June 1, and she intends to put the issue on the agenda.

“I think that it is a better outcome when more people have had the opportunity to talk about the appropriate use of one-time money like this,” she said. “It is important to get a lot of perspectives.”

Cain said the committees worked well with many commissioners last year to allocate the one-time money from the recovery act. She said that model of cooperation should be used to allocate the drug forfeiture money as well.

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