The Prince George's County sheriff's office hid $45,000 seized from an alleged drug dealer for seven years as the department lobbied for legislation that would have enabled it to keep all or part of the money.
The money, which was not discovered during an audit of the department early last year, finally was deposited with the county's finance department last month, after auditors were tipped off about the money in November. Now, the sheriff's department employee who tipped them has been notified his job is being eliminated.
Sgt. Bill Ament, a spokesman for Sheriff Alonzo D. Black (D), first called the failure to report the money "an oversight" and added: "We don't have a clue as to why it was sitting around for all that time."
Col. John Moss, Black's chief deputy, said neither he nor Black knew about the $45,000 in confiscated cash until after the auditors were told about it in November. "I don't believe the sheriff knew anything about the money," he said.
But former sheriff James Aluisi, who stepped down in December 1998, said in an interview that all his top officials, including Black, knew about the $45,000 and that he asked Black in 1997 to draft legislation to give the department a cut of seized funds.
"Al Black was in charge of getting the legislation through," Aluisi said.
Black could not be reached for comment.
The disclosure of the hidden money raised new questions about whether all of the money that was seized is accounted for--there is an apparent discrepancy of about $1,000--as well as about $15,000 in other seized funds that the auditors discovered in the same safe where officials said the $45,000 was kept.
In response to questions from The Washington Post about the discrepancy, Moss said: "This is under immediate investigation. This is something serious. We are absolutely going to follow through on this even if it leads to criminal sanctions for anyone here."
Under Maryland law, law enforcement agencies must immediately turn in any contraband cash--such as money confiscated from alleged gamblers and drug dealers--to the county treasury. In most counties, the money is later divvied up among schools and police agencies if the courts rule the public is entitled to it under civil forfeiture laws. In Prince George's, the sheriff's department is not among the agencies that receive such money.
The Prince George's sheriff's office is responsible for courthouse security and serving warrants and rarely has occasion to seize contraband cash. Ament estimated the agency has confiscated $100,000 over the past two decades.
In recent years, the sheriff's office also has been strapped for operating funds because of a long-running budget feud and court battle between Aluisi and County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). During the squabble, the department fell into disarray and failed to carry out many of its duties.
Black has tried to heal the rift and win more financial support from the county. On Jan. 6, 1999, three weeks after taking office, Black asked the County Council to have its independent Office of Audits and Investigations conduct an inventory of all cash, weapons, computers and other "fixed assets" in the sheriff's office.
"The sheriff was simply trying to find out what he had," Moss said. As a result, all sheriff's employees were ordered to cooperate with the auditors and to report "all monies and all property," according to a department memo.
In their March report, auditors said they had tallied $15,378 in "confiscated cash on hand" in the sheriff's property room. They also noted that sheriff's employees lacked specific regulations on how to handle and secure seized cash and that the money was not being deposited in the county treasury, as required.
But they didn't find the $45,000.
"We wouldn't have known it existed if somebody hadn't told us about it," said David H. Van Dyke, then the acting county auditor. "If their intent was to hide it and sit on it, we would never have found out about it."
But Aluisi defended his actions. "I've done a lot of things in my career, but it was never my intention to defraud people in the county," he said. "So many people knew about it. We just weren't going to turn it in until we could get our share."
According to court records, the money was confiscated Feb. 18, 1993, when sheriff's deputies and FBI agents kicked in an apartment door in the 1100 block of Kennebec Street in Oxon Hill.
The law enforcement agents were looking for 30-year-old Darnell Maddox, a suspect in a 1992 slaying in the District. They had a warrant for his arrest and found him asleep in the back bedroom at 6:30 a.m. Sarah Nell Lee, the apartment's tenant, also was sleeping there. After rousting her at gunpoint, the officers searched the apartment.
According to records filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court, they found wads of cash, seven handguns, 10 ounces of liquid PCP and seven large plastic freezer bags containing 1,783 grams of marijuana.
A detailed inventory filed by defense lawyers puts the total of the cash at $45,638. In the same court file, charging documents prepared by sheriff's deputies put the amount at $45,653.
Public records show, however, that when Prince George's auditors counted the money two months ago, they found only $44,653--about $1,000 less than what is described in court records.
Drug and gun charges against Lee and Maddox were later dismissed after a Circuit Court judge ruled that sheriff's deputies and FBI agents conducted an illegal search of Lee's apartment. The murder charge against Maddox in the District was also dismissed, according to court records.
A lawyer for Harold Irv Smith, a senior fiscal manager who was hired by the sheriff's office in 1979, confirmed that his client was the person who notified auditors. Smith was notified this month that the department plans to eliminate his job.
Smith declined to comment. His lawyer, Timothy F. Maloney, said he is trying to fight the decision, arguing that sheriff's officials did not follow proper procedures.
Moss confirmed that Smith was recently placed on administrative leave but declined to comment further, citing personnel privacy rules. He said sheriff's officials did not know who told auditors about the missing money. Regardless, he said, that person would not be punished.
"We appreciate anyone who would want to bring these issues to light and make sure that we are held accountable to the public," Moss said.
Staff writer Peter Slevin and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.