Report: Lancaster County DA spent $21,000 in drug forfeiture funds to lease SUV for work

LANCASTER COUNTY -- Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman spent more than $21,000 in drug forfeiture proceeds, the largest source of revenue for the Lancaster County Drug Task Force, to lease and maintain a sport utility vehicle to travel for district attorney business, according to a LNP report.

Stedman began leasing the vehicle, a Toyota Highlander, in January 2016, the LNP report says.

LNP obtained the information by reviewing Stedman's expense reports from the Lancaster County controller's office, parking records from the Harrisburg Parking Authority, and vehicle information from Carfax.

The LNP reports says from January 2016 to November 2018, Stedman spent $21,373.32 in drug forfeiture proceeds on the lease, security deposit, registration and inspection of the vehicle, including a $10,000 initial payment, a $1,950 security deposit, and monthly payments of $300.

Since the spring of 2017, LNP reports, Stedman drove the SUV to Harrisburg at least 16 times. His expense reports indicate he used the vehicle while attending legislative hearings, meetings with the governor's staff, and participating in law conferences and training. These activities were not directly related to drug-law enforcement, LNP says.

Stedman also sought and received reimbursement for $505.93 in mileage during that time, under a county policy that allows employees to recover wear and tear on their personal cars while driving on official business, LNP reports.

Brett Hambright, a spokesperson for the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office, defended the use of drug forfeiture funds to lease the vehicle, which he described as a work vehicle. Hambright noted the practice is common among district attorneys in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

Lancaster County District Attorney's Office Lease Agreement

"Many DAs and members of law enforcement have taxpayer-funded work vehicles," Hambright said in the written statement. "The DA here does not and has never requested a taxpayer funded vehicle. Some other DAs have work vehicles not funded by taxpayer dollars but rather through forfeiture funds. Either situation is entirely legitimate and appropriate given the duties of the office.

"This is a smart practice that is followed across Pennsylvania and the nation; it is far from unique."

Hambright's statement noted that most of the crimes Stedman prosecutes — from DUI to domestic abuse — are related to drug activity in some way, and therefore his spending of forfeiture money on a vehicle to perform his duties is permissible under state law.

“As chief law enforcement officer of the county, the District Attorney is on call 24/7; incidents requiring the DA can take place at any time on any day,” Hambright said.

(The Lancaster County District Attorney's Office's full statement appears below.)

LNP noted in its report that Stedman’s use of drug forfeiture money to pay for a car lease is rare, but not unique, among district attorneys in Pennsylvania. The Berks County District Attorney does the same thing, LNP's report says.

The Lancaster County Board of Commissioners told LNP it had been unaware of Stedman's lease, and called it "improper."

The board also told LNP it is launching a review to determine “whether this vehicle was ever used for non-County business purposes as well as the matter of mileage.”

“We need to ensure all payments made in connection with this vehicle were proper,” the commissioners said in a statement, which appears in full below.

LNP said it began looking into the use of drug forfeiture money while reporting on the national debate over the propriety of civil asset forfeiture and how the proceeds are spent.

LNP filed a request with Stedman's office to review records of the drug-related property seized in Lancaster County every year. The state Office of Open Records ordered Stedman to release the records, but Stedman's office appealed to the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, arguing the law shields expenditure records from disclosure.

STATEMENT FROM THE LANCASTER COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE

"Anyone who feels we should use taxpayer dollars instead of drug dealer assets to fight crime does a disservice to Lancaster County taxpayers.

Forfeiture funds are governed by a strict set of rules, established by the state legislature, to provide oversight by independent agencies of the usage of those funds.

Specifically, all the county’s forfeiture expenses are annually audited by the Lancaster County Controller’s Office and the Attorney General and they have found every single forfeiture expense by this office to have been in compliance with the law every single year.

As chief law enforcement officer of the county, the District Attorney is on call 24/7; incidents requiring the DA can take place at any time on any day. This includes calls to crime scenes, police stations and other various locations in the middle of the night, on weekends, and holidays. The DA must always be available to respond regardless of whether these incidents happen during or outside of what most people would define as normal work hours.

The DA directly oversees and commands the Lancaster County Drug Task Force as part of his duties each day of the week.

Additionally, every single day the DA supervises enforcement of all drug crimes and the vast array of numerous crimes that are related to and/or driven by drugs in the county, to include DUIs and violent crimes. It would be myopic to assume the DA will have one specific task, event or duty for each day. That said, we still find a nexus to drug-related behaviors, crimes and trends regarding the topics outlined in LNP’s event-specific inquiries.

For example, LNP cites DUI events: more than a third of DUIs in this county involve drug impairment. Regarding Sentencing Commission meetings: if LNP is not aware of this group’s function, the commission sets guidelines for all crimes for use by sentencing judges in Pennsylvania criminal courts. Regarding animal-cruelty law and Marsy’s Law events: law enforcement would be naïve to believe drug use/addiction does not play roles in domestic-abuse crimes – those against another person or a pet.

Not unlike other DAs in Pennsylvania and the nation, the Lancaster County DA has access to a work vehicle. Many DAs and members of law enforcement have taxpayer-funded work vehicles. The DA here does not and has never requested a taxpayer funded vehicle. Some other DAs have work vehicles not funded by taxpayer dollars but rather through forfeiture funds. Either situation is entirely legitimate and appropriate given the duties of the office.

This is a smart practice that is followed across Pennsylvania and the nation; it is far from unique.

We encourage you to contact the PDAA to confirm the legitimacy of use as well as the Lancaster County Controller’s office to confirm complete compliance with the law in every audit."

STATEMENT FROM LANCASTER COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS

"The Board of Commissioners was not aware that the District Attorney had leased a vehicle for his individual use in 2016.  We are now learning that he apparently went outside of the County procurement process using drug forfeiture funds to do so and leased a vehicle for his individual use.

No other county official has such a vehicle.

There is a standard procedure in place for County departments when a department needs to procure a vehicle.  It involves going through the County Purchasing Department.  That apparently was not done here.

According to County Code, which is the governing law in this case, the Board of Commissioners is the contracting authority for all contracts entered into by County entities.  This includes County elected row offices.  Therefore, any contract not approved by the Board, including a vehicle lease, is improper.

This situation is exactly the type of situation that calls for transparency of how drug forfeiture funds are being used.  This is why the Board of Commissioners is seeking to intervene in the open records case now before the Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County.  While we recognize that all sensitive law enforcement information must be redacted, the release of other financial information is required for transparency and good government.

Further, despite the District Attorney’s claim that the release of such financial information is not permitted by law, both the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records and another Court in Pennsylvanian have found that release is appropriate and, in fact, required.

Lastly, we are reviewing whether this vehicle was ever used for non-County business purposes as well as the matter of mileage.  We need to ensure all payments made in connection with this vehicle were proper."

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