Drug task force questions audit

Published 9:39 am Tuesday, March 12, 2013

By Al Strain
Owatonna People’s Press

Leaders of the South Central Drug Task Force are disputing the findings of an audit performed on the task force last year which was critical of how the task force performs its job.

The task force — comprising 13 agencies across Steele, Freeborn, Waseca and Faribault counties — was audited last year by the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor. The audits were done at the request of the Department of Public Safety, and more than 20 other task forces across the state were audited in 2012.

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The audit of the South Central Drug Task Force recorded 14 findings, according to a report from Minnesota Violent Crimes Coordinating Council, a committee of DPS. State auditor Rebecca Otto said the audits done for the task forces were audits of procedures.

“We conducted about 23 of these things for the Department of Public Safety,” Otto said. “There were very specific things they asked my staff to test for, which they did. Most of them have some findings.”

However, officials with the South Central Task Force say that some of the findings in the report don’t accurately reflect the operations of the unit. Tim Hassing, commander of the task force, said the unit is audited annually, but this is the first time it has been done by the Office of the State Auditor.

“What the audit provided was recommendation of procedures to improve what we already have,” Hassing said Friday. “I didn’t think that the audit itself was corrective by nature. We were doing things appropriately.

“The auditor’s office wants us to run the same type of process throughout all of the task forces,” Hassing said. “Our goal is to always improve in that direction, but based on different kinds of things — like what we have for software and what we have available to keep records — things are done a little bit differently. It does not mean that it affects the end product. The end product has always been the same.”

The audit’s findings included one incident in which drug evidence went missing during a task force investigation. The evidence was never recovered, which resulted in the charges being dropped. Hassing said though the situation comes up in the audit, the task force took its own action on the case before the audit even took place.

“It was identified through our internal processes, and we were the ones that reported that,” Hassing said. “When we found out that the item was missing, we immediately reported it, and I took it to the board. We followed the process and we hid nothing. We provided all the information.”

The agent in question, Corey Ferris of the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office, was placed on paid administrative leave in December 2011 before he resigned in March 2012, according to a report from the Albert Lea Tribune. Freeborn County Sheriff Bob Kindler said an investigation of the matter was done by the Minneapolis Police Department, and no charges were filed against Ferris.

Since that incident, the task force updated its evidence procedures. Hassing is now informed of all evidence collected at the time of its seizure, and an email is sent to him identifying how and where the evidence is secured by the agents. Kindler said his agency also updated its evidence procedures.

“This was a singular incident. It had never happened before, and it has not happened since,” Hassing said.

Other findings of the audit that the task force responded to included a lack of currency logs with forfeiture paperwork. The auditor noted there was no paper copy with a cash seizure on two forfeitures.

Task force administrative assistant Kim Dub said there was only one forfeiture without currency logs, and the two cash seizures were part of one case, which was why there was only one entry in the evidence tracking system. Additionally, no paper copy was attached to the forfeiture because it was logged electronically by bar code, which Owatonna Police Chief Keith Hiller says has improved the efficiency for tracking evidence.

An additional finding showed two guns seized as part of a forfeiture that were identified as stolen. The audit suggested that any reasonable means should be taken to return the stolen property within 90 days of seizure, as required by state statute. Hiller said because the guns were being held as evidence for prosecution in a case, they cannot be released from evidence until the case is resolved.

The findings against the South Central Drug Task Force were consistent with findings in audits of other task forces. According to the Violent Crime Coordinating Council’s report, some consistent findings of the audits include failure to document inventory of seized property and failure to document evidence properly.

When evidence is logged at the Law Enforcement Center in Owatonna, an entry is made in the software and placed in a locker that can only be accessed by certain personnel inside the evidence room once the locker is locked. Not all evidence collected by the task force comes to Owatonna. Evidence is taken to the agency that has jurisdiction in the case.

Capt. Eric Rethemeier of the Owatonna Police Department said that evidence intake processes differ across the task force, and that getting a uniformity between all the agencies would be a difficult task. Different agencies have different evidence tracking software and different procedures for cataloging the evidence.

Hiller, chair of the board of directors for the task force, said they always welcome ways to improve their procedures, but sometimes the recommendations made by an auditor don’t work in a law enforcement environment.

“Our drug task force will always attempt to follow the best practice guidelines if it’s in the best interest of the community, the task force and our profession,” Hiller said, noting that auditors don’t always have experience in the operating procedures of a police environment. “There was a disconnect between tying audit procedures and best practices into law and reality.”

Otto said when the auditors go in to perform an audit of procedures, they randomly select cases out of a group of similar cases, such as cash seizures, and audits a sample of the larger group, as they were requested to do by DPS.

“We talk about the procedure and we talk about the findings (in the audit),” Otto said. “We do random testing of certain items in certain areas, and for each of these task forces … some had more findings and some had less.

“Auditors go in and they test, and then the audit goes through and highlights what was found and how it compares to the Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force Operating Procedures and Guidelines manual, which is how things are supposed to be done with these task forces.”

Otto said the governing bodies — be it DPS, a city government, a county government or any other overseeing body — receive a copy of the audits and then they decide how to address any findings discovered in the auditing process. Some task forces had no findings in their audits, requiring no further follow up. According to the Violent Crime Coordinating Council’s report, the South Central Drug Task Force was scheduled for a followup with a corrective action plan in three to six months.

“In government, we are held to a higher standard,” Otto said. “We’re highly regulated, because it’s taxpayer money. And so there are government accounting standards and auditing standards that are applied. Normally people welcome the auditors coming in because it helps you to make sure they are following their policies and procedures … If you have findings that bring issues to your attention, hopefully you take those issues and you take appropriate action.”

Hassing said the results of the audit surprised him, but noted that it was an auditor’s interpretation of how things should be done. An audit review, done by the Office of Justice, was performed after the state audit was completed in October. During that second review, Hassing said the task force offered its responses to the audit’s findings to the Office of Justice, which was done in November.

“They came in, reviewed our responses and basically said continue working as usual,” Hassing said. “They were happy with our responses and happy with our explanations for those interpretations and said continue to do business as usual.”

Hiller said The Office of Justice’s audit review was helpful because the office has experience with law enforcement operations, and its affirmation of the processes used by the task force was valuable. Hassing said that the auditor’s report doesn’t mean people need to be distrustful of the task force.

“I think we run a top-notch organization here. Everything is in place,” Hassing said.