"I've got a $160,000 Rolls-Royce, a $1 million Merlin airplane or a $2 million boat marina. I've got a $120,000 Exxon station in Baltimore. I've got Ferraris, Jaguars, gemstones and mink coats."
Steven Zimmerman is reading from a list of recent seizures by the Drug Enforcement Administration. As one of two lawyers responsible for seizing drug dealers' assets, Zimmerman takes a proprietary interest in the items.
"There's a lot of fantasy involved," Zimmerman said. "It's a lot like seeing how the other half lives. You wonder what it would be like to have that kind of money and assets."
In the last two years alone, Zimmerman has helped arrange the sale of a $600,000 boat, an $855,000 parcel of land in Miami, a $40,000 Winnebago, a $450,000 airplane, a $1.1 million ranch in Texas and a $300,000 helicopter.
Items that would cost more to sell than they are worth are ignored by the DEA and allowed to remain with the owner, Zimmerman said. "From a cost-benefit standpoint, it doesn't make a lot of sense" to seize them.
Eventually, the money winds up in the U.S. Treasury. William M. Lenck, the lawyer in charge of the program, expects the items seized this year will bring in more than $70 million for the U.S. government. Last year, the seizures amounted to $55 million.
The DEA, along with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, has had the authority to seize the proceeds of drug sales since 1978. Eleven states, including Maryland, have similar laws permitting law enforcement officers to confiscate the proceeds of drug sales.
Virginia permits the seizure of the proceeds only after the owner has been convicted. The District permits seizure only of drugs and property used in the commission of a crime, such as cars or boats used to transport drugs.
The DEA program began making major inroads on drug dealers' loot only in the last three years, according to Zimmerman. Previously, he said, the DEA program was mired in red tape, judges were more hesitant to approve the seizures and planes and yachts were often left to rot for lack of proper maintenance.
"Property wasn't being stored well or maintained. We weren't very good at protecting or selling it," he said.
Zimmerman said 273 Tiffany glassworks and art nouveau objects were seized from convicted marijuana smuggler Barry W. Toombs of Annandale two years ago. "The Tiffanys would have sat in the warehouse and been sold at public auction," Zimmerman said. "We might never have realized their true value."
Instead, Zimmerman contracted with Sotheby's to sell the items, which were first believed to be fakes but later were appraised at $700,000. They sold last March for $1.7 million, including $64,000 for a 10-inch vase and $30,000 to $40,000 for tabletop lamps.
After the auction house deducted its fees and other expenses, Sotheby's gave the government a hand-delivered check for $1.5 million. "The numbers we have now are astounding," Zimmerman said. "This year will be far and away the most sensational year.
"It gives the agents a real sense of satisfaction not only to arrest them but to put their operation out of business," he said. "In the past, arrested drug dealers would be replaced by someone else. We take out their capital. They have to start from scratch."
The property is seized by DEA agents and stored in regional warehouses or marinas until sold. Cash is kept in DEA vaults. All airplanes are flown to Texas, where they are stored at a military base. The DEA's Washington office keeps its seized cars in a Washington area garage. Recently, the U.S. Marshals Service agreed to take over responsibility for storage.
If the value of an asset is $10,000 or less, the DEA can dispose of it in a matter of a month or two. If it is more than $10,000, the DEA must go to court and obtain the approval of a judge. The owner can challenge the seizure, and that procedure normally delays a sale by a year or two.
During the proceeding, the DEA must present evidence establishing that an asset probably was purchased with the proceeds of a drug sale. For example, DEA agents might show that a drug dealer bought a home for $500,000 several weeks after making a $1 million drug sale.
Under the federal law, the standard of proof necessary to seize and sell assets is not as demanding as the standard needed to produce a criminal conviction. Therefore, Zimmerman said, a "handful" of people have had their property seized and were later acquitted of drug trafficking. Usually, he said, the DEA waits until criminal proceedings are finished before starting the action necessary to sell off defendants' assets.
About 95 percent of the court proceedings are won by the DEA, according to Zimmerman.
To speed the process, federal law enforcement agencies have proposed legislation already passed by the House and Senate that would raise the threshold requiring a court proceeding to $100,000. DEA Chief Counsel Joseph R. Davis said property inevitably will deteriorate while seizures are reviewed by courts with crowded calendars.
"Because of the length of time they sit there, a Lear jet is going to get damaged," he said.
Zimmerman said the amount of loot confiscated under the federal law depends on how much effort is expended by the DEA and FBI to trace the increasingly sophisticated transactions used to hide the assets.
"Instead of leaving it in suitcases, they're now investing it. There are very sophisticated guys out there. Instead of cars and planes, they're putting their money into business interests, real estate, art and financial instruments," he said. Usually, he said, drug dealers use dummy corporations and trusts to hide their ownership of business interests, often using offshore or foreign bank accounts as well.
In terms of the potential, Zimmerman said, "We are just starting. CAPTION: Picture, Steven Zimmerman displays check for $1.5 million he received from Sotheby's. By M.C. Valada for WP -- The Washington Post