It has just become a little easier for local law enforcement authorities in Virginia to follow the money trail while investigating drug trafficking and other crimes.
Under the newly created Financial Crime Intelligence Center, they are being offered the help of a small but focused group of prosecutors and accountants in the state attorney general's office. The unit was formed only a month ago by Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), using a $300,000 community-oriented policing federal grant. The grant to Virginia is the only one of its kind in the nation.
Until now, no centralized agency has focused on investigating and prosecuting money laundering in Virginia, said Martin Kent, an accountant and former insurance examiner who heads the attorney general's organized crime unit.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars are leaving the commonwealth in drug proceeds, credit card and insurance fraud and auto theft," said Ed Doyle, head of the new division. "So the attorney general said, 'Let's go after the money.' "
Initially, the focus is on drug trafficking. The most pervasive illegal narcotics in Northern Virginia are marijuana, cocaine, crack and ecstasy, said Bob Penland, an official with the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, an agency that helps to coordinate law enforcement involving drug crimes.
Increasingly, officials are recognizing that one of the most effective ways to attack illegal drug trafficking is to tie up proceeds that otherwise would be used to replenish supplies.
"If we want to have an impact on drug traffickers, we have to take away their resources," Penland said. "We have to take away their ability to operate. We have to take away their money."
For the last month, Doyle has been contacting police detectives and commonwealth's attorneys throughout Virginia, offering his unit's assistance. The division has no arrest powers but can assist with any aspect of an investigation or prosecution.
Do police need help with an investigation? Doyle has access to financial databases that can track dealings of businesses suspected as covers for transferring cash. Or he can provide auditors who use financial profiling to look for suspicious anomalies in bank transactions.
Do prosecutors need help bringing suspects to trial? Doyle can arrange to help them formulate charges, provide a prosecutor as backup second chair or even take over an entire case if asked.
"Our strength is we can work in synergy with local departments who have jurisdiction," Doyle said. "We can offer guidance, suggestions, analysis. But it's their case."
The assistance is welcome at the Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, for one. Elliott Casey, an assistant commonwealth's attorney responsible for asset forfeitures and money laundering cases, said it is often difficult to obtain financial records before a suspect has been charged.
"Our subpoena power is limited," he said. "If we're looking at a business that might be a front for money laundering, we might have video surveillance tapes and a good tip, but we still can't look at the finances until a suspect is charged with a crime."
Even after charges have been filed, he said, obtaining financial records from out-of-state banks and credit card companies can be time-consuming.
The Financial Crime Intelligence Center has more resources and contacts, Casey said.
Casey said he saw results during his first contact with Doyle's office.
Casey's assistant dropped in to pay a courtesy call while visiting Richmond. Within half an hour, a lawyer with the unit was on the line with an Alexandria police detective, sharing information about several open cases involving a suspected drug distribution network. A week later, Doyle called and put Casey in touch with law enforcement authorities he knew in a country where a suspect had assets.
"They have access to a lot of systems to track financial information that we don't," Casey said, "and they have knowledge on how to do these kinds of investigations. We were excited to find out they were available."