The U.S. attorney's office and FBI agents are investigating allegations that a small number of deputies in the U.S. Marshal's Office in Washington may have taken payoffs from some landlords who wanted to speed up court-ordered evictions of their tenants, according to informed sources.
The 10-month-old investigation has been limited so far to undercover work, including electronic surveillance, but now is expected to move into subpoenas, interviews and evidence presented to a federal grand jury, sources said.
The allegations being investigated are that a few deputy marshals may have been paid small amounts of money over a period of several years by some landlords vying for the few spots on the marshal's daily list of scheduled evictions.
The marshal's service, citing limited manpower, carries out only about 15 evictions a day, sources said, even though there is a current backlog of 4,000 court-ordered eviction notices. Landlords, who lose money the longer they are stuck with nonpaying tenants, are relegated to making telephone calls to the marshal's service each morning in hopes of getting a place on the eviction list, according to John T. O'Neill, executive vice president of the association that represents landlords.
A spokesman for the U.S. marshal service headquarters said that officials there were informed of the allegations of improprieties in the eviction scheduling process about a year ago and brought them to the attention of the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI.
A joint investigation by federal agents then began with the assistance of the marshal's service and deputy marshals who participated in the undercover work, sources said.
A marshal service statement said it was "committed to a thorough investigation to ferret out every . . . criminal violation and/or violations of Justice Department standards of conduct."
The marshal's office in Washington receives about 75 to 100 eviction orders each day issued by judges of the D.C. Superior Court after landlords have successfully sued tenants for nonpayment of rent, according to O'Neill, of the Apartment and Office Building Association, a trade organization that represents about 70 percent of the landlords in the Washington metropolitan area.
About 2,500 to 3,000 evictions are carried out each year with a deputy marshal standing by to safeguard the tenants' goods and maintain order during the eviction process, O'Neill said.
Because of the backlog of eviction orders and the limited availability of deputy marshals to supervise the moves, landlords start tying up the marshal's telephone lines as much as 40 minutes before the office opens, to try to get a spot on the day's eviction list, O'Neill said.
A landlord's loss while waiting for an eviction can amount to three to four months of rent, O'Neill said. If the eviction is delayed more than 30 days, the landlord's court order must be renewed at additional expense, O'Neill said.
Anthony J. Furka, the newly appointed U.S. marshal, said yesterday that he was too new to the job to fully understand the details of the eviction process. Furka was appointed to the job two weeks ago after his predecessor was fired after having served two weeks on the job.