Editorial: Macomb must account for forfeiture funds

The Detroit News

Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith appears to have been enjoying a spending spree using forfeiture funds — without any kind of oversight or accountability. This is an excellent example of why local governments should be required to document how seized assets are being spent — much like school districts have to post their expenses.

Over the past decade, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel says about $1.8 million flowed through Smith's accounts without oversight or approval by the County Board of Commissioners.

The commissioners will vote in February on whether to conduct an audit of expenditures from a forfeiture fund split between four bank accounts controlled by Smith. They should vote yes to help keep county government accountable to its citizens.

A recent Detroit News review of 2017 and 2018 expenditures from the forfeiture fund shows some irregular purchases including a $1,000 break room fridge, $4,000 worth of flash drives, monthly credit card bills as high as $20,000 and $35,000 in Verizon bills.

More:Hackel seeks audit of Macomb prosecutor's spending

For a fund that is meant to be dispersed among different law enforcement agencies, those purchases don't look quite right.

Macomb County prosecutor Eric Smith (left)

Many checks written from the accounts were made out to Macomb County police agencies for their share of forfeitures resulting from arrests in different communities.

But there are also $500 checks written out to charities and churches which, according to Hackel, are not allowed.

Expenditures like this have caused Hackel and county Treasurer Larry Rocco to request that the commissioners order a forensic audit of the accounts to determine exactly how Smith's office used the funds.

Smith maintains he made no mistakes in the handling of the forfeiture fund and has welcomed the audit.

The board shouldn’t just take him at his word. Members plan to take up the issue at the finance committee meeting on Feb. 20. It would take eight commissioners to assent to the audit for it to go forward.

Jared Maynard, the former chairman of the Macomb County Republicans, sued the county to obtain bank records for accounts Smith’s office controls for funds from forfeitures and bad checks.

Given that Smith changed the tax I.D. number for the accounts after they were identified by an initial audit, there is justification for commissioners to pursue a new dive into the accounts.

And though some commissioners may worry about making an enemy of the county prosecutor, in addition to the cost of hiring an auditing firm, that shouldn’t keep them from voting in favor of a forensic audit of the accounts.

“Every other check in county government has backup documentation,” Hackel says. “That’s all we are asking for.”

Clearly, transparency is needed in these expenditures. And to prevent abuse, law enforcement offices all over the state should be required to detail how forfeiture funds are spent.