The Metro Gang Strike Force suspended operations on Wednesday night, less than 12 hours after the Minnesota Legislative Auditor's office issued a report saying that it could not account for at least $18,126 in cash and 13 vehicles that had been seized by Strike Force officers.
The decision to immediately close the offices was made by the force's commander, Chris Omodt, after learning that some Strike Force investigators turned up at the agency's New Brighton headquarters after hours on Wednesday to remove items from the offices.
Omodt said he did not know what items were being removed but was concerned they might be related to an inquiry that state Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion announced earlier in the day.
Campion told the Legislative Audit Commission that he was going to ask the Strike Force's advisory board to suspend operations a week from now and that he would soon announce the appointment of two people -- a former federal prosecutor and a retired FBI special agent -- to implement the findings of the Minnesota legislative auditor.
But all of that changed Wednesday night when Manila Shaver, chairman of the advisory board, went to the Strike Force offices and saw materials being removed, said Omodt, a captain with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office who assumed command of the Strike Force in late January.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said Wednesday night that the auditor's findings merited an immediate investigation for accountability and transparency. "Tonight's actions by several members of the Metro Gang Strike Force ... raise suspicions about the documented findings of the legislative auditor -- missing cash and cars," Stanek said.
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles reported Wednesday that his office identified at least $18,126 in cash that the Strike Force seized but couldn't account for. Also, auditors couldn't find 13 of 80 vehicles seized by the Strike Force and forfeited to it by courts from August 2005 to October 2008. Another vehicle that was supposed to be held as evidence also went missing.
The audit said Ron Ryan, the former Strike Force commander, sold a seized flat-screen television to a student worker on his staff, but had to take it back after learning the original owner still had a legal right to it.
Campion said that in light of the findings, he has moved to withhold about $840,000 in state funding from the Strike Force until his inquiry is complete and more than two dozen recommendations of the auditor's report are implemented.
Campion said he did not believe there was criminal wrongdoing, but if his appointees find a criminal investigation is warranted, an agency will be sought to conduct one.
Ryan submitted a memo disputing many of the report's findings. Referring to a finding that there was no record that the Strike Force served proper notices for 202 of 545 cash seizures, totaling $165,650, Ryan wrote, "Simply stated, these results are absurd. I personally handled this seizure process."
He called the Strike Force, which he headed from 1997 to 2008, "the best task force that the state of Minnesota has ever funded," and said it was successful in fighting gang activity.
"The Strike Force is an important resource in our statewide gang enforcement strategy and has had a history of successful investigations and prevention efforts," Campion said in a statement. "It's critical that we get these police officers back on the streets quickly, particularly because gang violence often increases in the summer months."
He said he had "absolute confidence" in Omodt. While operation of the 34-member force is suspended, its officers could return to their local agencies and continue their investigations, he said.
Nobles and Deputy Auditor Cecile Ferkul presented the findings to the Legislative Audit Commission.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, chairwoman of the commission, said, "We have other financial audits that have shown poor internal controls, but this goes far beyond that."
The auditor's report found the Strike Force failed to develop basic internal controls that would ensure it properly safeguarded or accounted for seized cash and other property. It said the Strike Force failed to comply with legal requirements for such property and did not properly use confidential informant funds. Auditors found nearly $400,000 of seized cash in a property room safe, dating to 2000.
The boards that oversee the Strike Force -- the Minnesota Gang and Drug Oversight Council and the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board -- did not properly monitor the force's financial activity, the report said.
The report also criticized the Strike Force for spending "significant resources" to send six officers to Hawaii in March for a conference on gangs, without required prior approval by its advisory board.
While the report stated that the auditor could not account for $18,126 in seized cash, it noted that the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office -- the force's fiscal agent -- said it had deposited $2,960 of this amount through Dec. 31, 2008, lowering the unaccounted-for total to $15,166. "We did not validate this claim," the report said.
Shaver said in a report that Omodt has begun implementing changes. He told the Legislative Audit Commission on Wednesday that the Strike Force intends to win back the public's trust.
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382