The Hellcat episode, first reported by the media over the summer, drew national attention to the five-term sheriff and his agency's participation in the federal program that disburses money and property seized in criminal and civil investigations back to local authorities. Sheriff's department records obtained by the AJC indicate Justice Department auditors are reviewing several years of purchases made by Conway's agency.
His spokeswoman, Deputy Shannon Volkodav, on Wednesday said the department has a long history of fiscal responsibility and the sheriff is not concerned about the review.
“We fully anticipate that the results of the audit will be favorable,” Volkodav said. “We actually do follow the rules at the sheriff’s office.”
Gwinnett’s administrator said the county is reviewing possible policy changes to ensure forfeiture funds are spent according to federal guidelines.
Critics, meanwhile, called the review of Conway’s expenditures “revealing.”
"The findings show the problem with forfeiture, in that law enforcement has an incentive to focus on crime that pays," said Lee McGrath, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which calls for curtailing and ultimately abolishing civil asset forfeiture.
McGrath added that agencies sometimes use the funds improperly to “supplement” their budgets and “in this case, create a slush fund.”
A ‘wild hair’
Conway, who started his law enforcement career in 1973 with the Gwinnett County Police Department, was elected sheriff in 1996. The main duties of his office are to serve warrants and operate the local jail, but his deputies sometimes work with federal authorities such as the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
By participating in these joint investigations, the sheriff’s office is eligible to collect a share of the asset forfeiture funds seized during drug raids and other operations. The cash, and sometimes physical property, are meant as compensation for local manpower and expense.
Records show Conway’s federal forfeiture accounts carried a total balance of more than $827,000 at the end of 2017, about a third of which was collected last year alone. Federal rules dictate how local law enforcement agencies can use such funds, but even critics of the program acknowledge the rules are not always clear.
The Justice Department’s review appears to be examining expenditures in Gwinnett dating back to 2013. Communications between investigators and the sheriff’s office reviewed by the AJC under the Georgia Open Records Act suggest federal auditors have questioned several specific purchases.
They include Conway’s $25,000 donation last year to a local nonprofit called MovementForward, Inc. In response to auditor’s concerns, Gwinnett County wrote a check in September to reimburse the federal forfeiture account for the donation.
Sheriff’s department records also show two other $25,000 payments to MovementForward made using forfeiture funds — one in 2012 and one in 2016. It’s unclear if auditors have questioned these transactions.
Rev. Markel Hutchins is the leader of MovementForward and its flagship program, One Congregation, One Precinct. The group's website says it helps foster better relationships between faith leaders and law enforcement. It has held at least a few events locally, including one in Gwinnett following a controversial incident involving two local police officers. Conway was among the attendees of that event.
Hutchins credits Conway and his department with helping the so-called OneCOP program get started — and said if the sheriff’s contributions weren’t an allowable use of forfeiture funds, he doesn’t know what is.
“This is drug money [from] thugs and people who are literally poisoning our communities,” Hutchins said. “Those drug monies were utilized to invest in actually building relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Justice Department guidelines allow for local law enforcement agencies to support “community based non-profit organizations … whose stated missions are supportive of and consistent with a law enforcement effort, policy, and/or initiative.” It’s unclear from records reviewed by the AJC why federal auditors determined MovementForward was not an eligible charity.
Hutchins believes the issue arose because MovementForward does additional work outside the realm of law enforcement.
“I think what probably happened in this instance is that some bureaucrat at the Department of Justice in Washington got a wild hair about the sheriff’s use of that money around that car and started to kind of look at everything,” Hutchins said. “But it makes absolutely no sense to us whatsoever.”
‘Level of confidence’
Communications between auditors and Conway’s office suggest the federal review team is also examining transactions involving a number of vehicles the sheriff’s office purchased through the federal program.
Investigators have asked for more information regarding a $175,000 “motor coach bus” that was purchased in 2016. The sheriff’s office told investigators that the 30-seat bus is used to, among other things, transport personnel and equipment for disaster relief assistance, search and rescue operations and other large-scale emergency responses.
Additional documentation was requested by federal authorities regarding the use of seven vehicles previously purchased or acquired through the forfeiture program. Investigators also asked about the eventual sale on eBay of four of the vehicles, and if the more than $41,000 in proceeds were deposited back into the sheriff’s forfeiture account.
Federal forfeiture funds are intended to increase a law enforcement agency’s overall budget and are not permitted to be used to to replace or supplant other funding.
Federal guidelines raise questions about other expenditures reviewed by the AJC as well.
In 2013, the sheriff’s office purchased four M6-G government model rifles — for a total of $7,758 — that it later gave to the Georgia State Patrol. According to the Justice Department’s guidelines, agencies can’t purchase items for other law enforcement agencies using forfeiture funds.
Volkodav said that, at the time of the purchase, guidelines were different and did not prohibit such donations. A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed Thursday that forfeiture rules had changed since 2013.
“The DOJ guidelines change regularly, and it’s always a challenge to stay on top,” Volkodav said.
Between Dec. 2016 and May 2017, the sheriff’s office spent $16,150 in forfeiture funds for sheriff’s office supervisors to attend seminars from an organization called GameChangers. The program bills itself as “a character-based leadership program designed for personal, motivational and moral development.”
Guidelines allow for forfeiture funds to be spent on training and education in “any area necessary to perform official law enforcement duties.”
“Some of it could be completely legitimate,” said William Perry, the executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “But because there’s been such a bad use of judgment with this stuff, I think it all should be scrutinized.”
Law enforcement’s seizure and redistribution of money and property recovered during investigations has long been controversial, with abuses reported across the country.
Earlier this year, a Justice Department inspector general’s audit found that the Atlanta Police Department had mispent more than $1.4 million in seized funds to renovate a crime lab.
Gwinnett Administrator Glenn Stephens said the county has routinely reviewed the sheriff’s purchases over the years. As a result of the federal probe, Gwinnett’s finance office is examining purchasing policies to see if additional checks need to be put in place to meet federal rules.
“I have confidence in the Sheriff’s Department, led by Sheriff Conway, and their financial decisions, and neither [of the purchases that already had to be reimbursed] lessens that level of confidence,” Stephens said.
WHY IT MATTERS
While federal asset forfeiture funds are collected following criminal or civil investigations and must be used to supplement — not supplant — normal operating budgets, their misuse can result in federal authorities requesting reimbursement. In Gwinnett, those reimbursement dollars have come from county taxpayer funds.
An AJC and Channel 2 Action News investigation found that Gwinnett County has already had to reimburse federal accounts for nearly $100,000 in forfeiture asset funds spent by Sheriff Butch Conway.
Dozens of pages of documents and communications between sheriff’s office officials and federal investigators, obtained via the Georgia Open Records Act, revealed those repayments and identified other forfeiture purchases that could prove problematic.