Locating the whereabouts of 14 cars that were unaccounted for when officials audited the Metro Gang Strike Force does not resolve questions about whether the seized vehicles were properly handled and disposed of, according to the audit's author.

Even Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who has suggested that critiques of Strike Force practices have been politically motivated defended the Strike Force and said his investigators quickly traced the cars to locations including a local charity, said Thursday "we concur with the auditors that questions remain [about] whether the Strike Force properly handled the vehicles."

State Legislative Auditor James Nobles, whose recent report criticized handling of seized money and property by the force, said Thursday that Fletcher's office told him some of the vehicles were given to Cars with Heart, a charitable organization that sells donated cars to benefit nonprofit organizations selected by the donors.

"This information, although helpful, raises additional questions that need to be addressed, such as who authorized the transfer of vehicles, and who benefited from the sales, including who may have claimed taxed breaks," Nobles said.

Fletcher's investigators found that three vehicles went to Cars With Heart, which sold them to individuals. Five were taken to Twin City Transport & Recovery. Of those, three were sold, one was scrapped and one returned to its owner. Fletcher said he had photographs of nine of the vehicles.

"Who obtained the proceeds from the sale of the vehicles?" Nobles asked Thursday, noting some of them were high-priced. "Somebody may have also received a tax deduction for the donation, and we need to determine how that was handled. We have to find out whether there were other cars turned over to the organization."

Nobles said state attorney general's records show that the cars were forfeited (a court procedure), and his office saw no evidence the forfeitures were reversed. But he said the sheriff's report said two vehicles were returned to owners.

"We have a question as to how they were legally sent back to the owners," Nobles said.

'Great questions'

Fletcher said that Nobles is asking "great questions, and it's the auditor's job to find the answer."

Fletcher said two Strike Force investigators, Paul Meskan and John McManus, told him "that they felt the Strike Force administration" had not made an adequate attempt to locate the vehicles before or during the audit.

He said McManus and Meskan told sheriff's investigators about Cars with Heart, and the cars were all found within a few hours on Tuesday. With the new information, Fletcher said, Strike Force "Commander [Chris] Omodt needs to move quickly to get the answers" that the auditor wants.

A report, but no details

Omodt said Thursday that McManus on April 21 gave him a one-page document describing the disposition of about 10 vehicles in general terms, with no details. It did not say any of the cars went to Cars with Heart, Omodt said.

He said he gave the sheet to the Legislative Auditor on April 22 and did not receive a complete list of vehicles for which the auditor could not account until May 21, the day after the auditor's report was issued.

Omodt suspended Strike Force operations on May 20, after he learned that some Strike Force officers removed and shredded documents in the wake of the audit's release

Review panel meets

In another development Thursday, Michael Campion, the state public safety commissioner, met with the unit he appointed this week to conduct an internal investigation of the Strike Force. The unit was named the Metro Gang Strike Force Review Panel. Others in the meeting included Nobles and two FBI agents.

Doug Neville, a spokesman for the public safety department, said the panel decided to take two tracks:

It will identify a means to implement Nobles' recommendations and try to have them in place by June 30. Also, it will determine how the force "got to this point," and plan "how we move forward." That report will take longer, Neville said.

The FBI is conducting its own investigation to determine if Strike Force members violated the law.

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382