Despite tighter controls in the wake of the Metro Gang Strike Force scandal, a series of audits has uncovered mishandled cash, inadequate record-keeping and a lack of documentation of seized property and evidence at similar agencies in the state.
Some of the findings reflect many of the same issues uncovered at the Strike Force, said Sonya Johnson, who led the legislative auditor’s investigation of the now-defunct Strike Force and is the agency’s chief investigator.
“It’s like déjà vu,” said Johnson, who reviewed the audits of two of the regional task forces at the request of the Star Tribune. The two units had among the most problems cited by the state auditor, a different government agency. All 23 task forces in the state were audited.
“While serious, these audit findings are very different from the egregious activity of the Metro Gang Strike Force,” said Bruce Gordon, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, which provides some funding and oversight of the task forces.
In an e-mail, he said the audits mostly pointed to procedural errors, poor documentation and bad bookkeeping. “There is no question that improvements must be made in order to ensure that each team functions with the highest level of integrity and professionalism,” Gordon wrote, adding that corrective steps will be taken.
Supervisors of the two task forces whose audits were reviewed by Johnson denied any similarity with the issues surrounding the Metro Gang Strike Force and offered explanations for the auditor’s findings, point by point.
“Nothing was of any consequence, whatsoever,” said Sgt. Tim Hassing, commander of the South Central Gang and Drug Task Force in Owatonna.
Gary Pederson, commander of the Paul Bunyan Task Force in Bemidji, said he was well-versed in the Metro Gang Strike Force scandal and would not characterize his agency’s audit as remotely the same.
“If you looked numerically [at the audit], you would probably ... say ‘Holy mackerel, there are 10 violations,’ ” he said. But he said that some findings were mistaken, there was no missing evidence or money, and what minimal problems were found have been fixed.
Johnson said there would be a discussion in the legislative auditor’s office to determine if it should take any steps.
State Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee and authored some of the legislative reforms following the Strike Force debacle, said he’ll call a hearing on the task forces and ask Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman to testify. Dohman’s spokesman declined to make her available for an interview.
The 23 task forces, which focus on gangs, drugs and violence, are regional multi-jurisdictional agencies, usually involving several county sheriff’s offices, and in some cases, police departments.
A February report by the Public Safety Department showed the audits turned up 86 problems spread among the 23 task forces. Some had few problems. One, the Hennepin County Violent Offender Task Force, had none. The highest numbers were at the South Central task force (14), Anoka-Hennepin Narcotics and Violent Crime Task Force (11) and Paul Bunyan (10).
The report said that “common findings in these audit reports” include:
• Proper documentation missing for a confidential informant’s expenses.
• Failure to prerecord and photocopy cash used by undercover operatives as buy funds, which are used to buy drugs from suspects.
• Delays in depositing seized cash and/or returning unused buy funds.
• Improper use of buy funds for investigator expenses and/or petty cash.
• Failure to document inventory of seized property.
• Failure to document evidence properly.
• Commingling of task force receipts and disbursements in one account.
• Insufficient reconciliation process for monitoring cash accounts.
Lt. Bryon Fuerst, who heads the Anoka-Hennepin task force, acknowledged that the number of problems cited looks bad on paper. But he said the findings “have nothing to do with missing money, missing drugs or mishandling forfeitures. Ours was sloppy paperwork and based on this we have put some procedures into place that will prevent this type of oversight.”
Gordon said that interim state coordinator Brian Marquardt, a supervisor with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is working with the task forces to implement corrective action plans. A “full site visit” by public safety staff will follow and another audit will be done in nine to 12 months, he said.
The Metro Strike Force was abolished in 2009 after a series of revelations that included missing cash and evidence, hundreds of vehicles and other items seized without proper forfeiture notices, and a lavish trip to Hawaii by six officers.
The Strike Force ended up paying out $3 million in a class-action suit.
Investigations after the Strike Force’s demise concluded it lacked a strong monitoring system and that its executive board provided insufficient oversight. The Department of Public Safety vowed to tighten task force controls. The Legislature put in place a new Violent Crime Coordinating Council and mandated tough rules on handling of funds, forfeitures and evidence.
Bob Bushman, state coordinator for the Violent Crime Council, announced last August that he planned to retire. But seven months later, and three months after he retired, he has yet to be replaced.
Bushman normally would have met with the task forces after the audits to see that problems were corrected, but that job has fallen to Marquardt.
A finalist to replace him, Kent Bailey, a supervisory special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency in Minneapolis, was recommended by council members but was not chosen by Dohman, the commissioner. Gordon, the department spokesman, said he was prohibited from saying why Bailey was not picked, but said selection of a coordinator “is still in the process.”