After months of bickering with Sheriff Brad Gates over the proper use of money and property seized in drug raids, county officials conclude in a new report that the funds should be used for a broad array of law enforcement activities.
That recommendation, part of a 14-page report that will be presented to the County Board of Supervisors next week, directly contradicts Gates' position that the funds should only go toward fighting drugs. Officials say the report, which has taken six months to research, may finally settle a point of contention that has long strained relations between the board and the sheriff.
In particular, several board members have long complained that Gates misled them into believing that under federal law, seized drug assets could only be used for narcotics suppression. Supervisor Thomas F. Riley and other county officials said Thursday that Gates has helped cultivate that impression in his communications to the board and the county administrative officer.
"I don't know if there was malice in that or not, but it left some confusion, and that created some bad feelings," Riley said.
The report, which examined federal laws and surveyed California cities and counties, brusquely dismisses Gates' argument.
"It has also been suggested that the Federal Forfeiture Guidelines do not allow for the use of these funds for other than narcotic-related activities," states the report, written by officials in the county's management and budget division. "Obviously this is not the case, since the survey clearly gave an indication that law enforcement agencies have and do use these funds for general law enforcement purposes."
In April, Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez met with U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and other top Justice Department officials, and, he said, they indicated the same thing to him.
According to Vasquez and Barry Stern, an associate deputy attorney general who met with him during the supervisor's Washington visit, the funds can be used for a variety of law enforcement purposes, including jail construction. Orange County is under a court order to expand its jail facilities to relieve overcrowding.
"The Federal Forfeiture Guidelines also suggest that general law enforcement purposes, including jail construction, are acceptable uses of the forfeiture funds," according to the county report.
Local regulations do in some cases limit the use of seized drug assets, specifying that they only go toward drug enforcement. Those regulations can be changed by the board, however, and the report recommends that the supervisors amend them accordingly.
Seventeen California cities and 10 counties were surveyed in preparing the report, and many of them use their seized drug assets for purposes other than narcotics enforcement. In some cases, funds were used to supplement jail construction budgets.
Gates was unavailable for comment Thursday, but he has previously said he opposes using seized drug assets to help finance a new jail.
"We've tried to give special focus to the war on drugs, and that's what we feel is the most appropriate use of the money," Gates said in an April interview. "I think the people of this county want us to focus on drugs."
Undersheriff Raul Ramos reiterated that position Thursday, saying that while Gates was willing to spend forfeiture money on non-narcotics activities, the department believes general law enforcement expenditures should be held to a minimum. "Drugs are the No. 1 problem in this county, and that's what the money is for," Ramos said.
Although careful not to criticize the sheriff's accounting of seized drug assets, the report also recommends that board members direct the sheriff to supply them with regular reports on those funds, a move that county officials argue would help with long-range planning.
Moreover, the report argues that the supervisors should direct Gates to repay $500,000 that was loaned in 1987 to the Regional Narcotics Suppression Program. That money, the report said, should now be used to defray expenses on a proposed forensic sciences building.
Ramos said he believes that that would be an appropriate use of those funds.
Despite their differences, Gates and the supervisors agree on another point. Both say money from seized drug assets should not be used for operating expenses since revenue from seizures cannot be predicted from year to year. The report suggests, as Gates has previously, that seized assets be used on one-time capital and equipment needs.
Riley and other officials said Sheriff's Department officials have been sent copies of the report and are reviewing it. Its findings enjoy strong support among the supervisors, he added, saying that he expects it to be easily approved when it comes before the board next week.
Board Chairman Don R. Roth agreed but also said he expects to hear from Gates before the vote. "No doubt the sheriff will have something to say about it," Roth said, "but I haven't heard about it yet."