published Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

$100,000 for travel tops DTF spending

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    Pictured are vehicles seized by the drug task force operating in Bradley County at the force's headquarters in Charleston, Tenn., on Thursday, March 29, 2012.
    Photo by Jake Daniels.
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    The tenure of 10th District Drug Task Force director Mike Hall included allegations of improper spending and questions about drug use. Here, Hall makes an arrest.
    Shane McMillan
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It’s almost a wonder that 10th District drug agents managed to seized more than $5 million in cash, vehicles and other property allegedly linked to narcotics trafficking over four years — from the looks of their spending records, they were hardly ever home.

In just two years, task force agents spent at least $100,000 traveling around the country, staying in hotels from San Diego to Palm Beach, Fla., for seminars, training conferences and case-related trips, task force records show.

The Times Free Press counted more than 50 hotel stays, many for multiple days and for sometimes as many as a dozen agents, between 2008 and 2010. The traveling agents also were paid for airline tickets or vehicle mileage plus meals and expenses. Among their destinations: Sandestin, Fla.; Branson, Mo.; Charleston, S.C.; Gatlinburg and Opryland.

The money mostly came from the task’s force highway interdiction program — sitting alongside the interstate and watching for loads of drugs or money to drive by. The agents made 399 seizures from 2006 to 2010, keeping any cash they seized and auctioning off vehicles and other property to support their operations.

Many of Tennessee’s 31 judicial districts operate drug task forces, which allow sheriff’s and police departments in the district to join forces to combat drugs.

The 10th District was among the best at stopping couriers hauling marijuana, cocaine, pills and other drugs, bringing in about $5 million from 2006 to 2010, records from the Tennessee Department of Safety show.

For instance, in 2010, the task force brought in right at $600,000, while the 8th and 9th districts — the other two task forces working along Interstate 75 — brought in just more than $107,000 and $78,500, respectively, a state comptroller’s audit showed.

And the 10th District agents spent a lot, too, records show.

Using travel reimbursements, per-diem expense records and credit card receipts, the Times Free Press documented at least $100,000 spent just on travel in 2008-10. That included payments for hotel rooms as close as Atlanta and Nashville and as far away as San Diego and Charleston.

Much of the travel was documented in per-diem payments and hotel charges paid through the McMinn County Finance Office, which keeps the task force’s books.

Many other charges — for airfare, out-of-town hotels and meals — were made to Drug Task Force Director Mike Hall’s DTF credit card.

Receipts from Hall’s card between 2008 and 2010 also show nearly two dozen local hotel stays in Cleveland, Etowah, Athens, Madisonville, Vonore and Tellico Plains, among other areas, that were not explained as task force expenses.

Many receipts show two guests. Sometimes the hotel registration or credit card charge was signed by task force Agent Angie Gibson, such as a $450, three-night stay for two at a Smoky Mountains resort cabin in September 2008.

Hall did not respond to requests for comment.

The Times Free Press attempted to contact Gibson for comment. A woman who answered the phone at her residence in Madisonville on July 29 said, “I don’t know who that is.”

State auditors looking at the 10th District Drug Task Force’s finances in 2010 said Hall charged more than $50,000 that year to his task force credit card, of which more than $17,000 couldn’t be documented as legitimate expenses.

Credit card receipts going back to 2008 show that, where other drug task force agents wrote memos documenting their use of task force credit cards, receipts show Hall often failed to do so. In many cases, there’s no way to determine if a purchase was task force-related or not.

Examples of unexplained expenses on Hall’s credit card included pricey dining in Gatlinburg, Nashville and Atlanta, and:

∗ $859.08 on Aug. 28, 2008, for a treadmill and an elliptical machine at Sears;

∗ $499.98 on Feb. 18, 2009, for two three-piece table sets at Target;

∗ $508.48 for four nights at Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn in Palm Beach, Fla., on June 6, 2009;

∗ $128.57 on July 7, 2009, at Grace Peek Florist in Athens, Tenn.;

∗ $72.50 on Sept. 26, 2009, at Walmart for a “care package” — a basket, flowers, snacks, cards and scented candles;

∗ $117.15 on April 18, 2010, for “Secretary’s Day gift” — baskets, cards, scented candles, “spa socks,” health and grooming items and candy.

Hall also used his task forcecredit card lavishly to buy meals for himself, other task force members and law enforcement visitors.

Records show he spent thousands of dollars between 2008 and 2010 for meals in area restaurants. Some expenses were itemized as “working lunches” or food bought during meth lab investigations or search warrants. Other charges were never explained.

According to Joe Kimery, assistant director of the state comptroller’s division of county audit: “The state of Tennessee’s and most county adopted travel policies do not allow the reimbursement for routine meals while not on overnight travel status.”

Secretary of State spokesman Blake Fontenay said it’s “common sense” that anyone should know better than to use a state credit card for candy, flowers and gifts.

Signing checks

McMinn County Finance Officer Jason Luallen signs the checks for the agents’ credit card charges, travel and other authorized expenses.

Records show that Luallen paid for Hall’s and other task force agents’ credit card charges from a line item coded as a travel account.

And Luallen laid out nearly $11,000 between July 2008 and June 2010 to cover the task force’s tab at Walmart. Receipts show most of the expenditures were for supplies, equipment and snacks, but the agency also bought greeting cards, vitamins, grooming products such as shampoo and razors, Pamprin and Motrin, clocks and lamps, bathroom fixtures, plants, pots, and potting soil.

In a phone interview, Luallen said his job was to pay the bills, not question them. He said the county has purchasing procedures and, if the task force or DA’s office wasn’t complying, he would tell them so.

“I don’t question where they pay things from,” Luallen said. “If they tell me they say it’s OK to pay them, I pay them. I don’t have any authority over the spending.”

By law, 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb is chairman of the drug task force’s board, which is responsible for ensuring that task force members comply with state law and policy.

However, in a July interview, Bebb disclaimed responsibility.

“They did criticize me for not keeping an eye on the director, but that’s the comptroller’s job,” Bebb said. “That’s why they do audits. If they tell me there’s a problem, then I’m going to do something about it. But they haven’t told me [of] any problems until I got an audit done.”

In the same interview, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett said that, when Bebb heard “rumors” of lavish spending, he asked for a forensic audit in August 2010. Hall resigned around that same time, in August 2010, to take a job at a Florida ministry.

“Maybe he left because he felt guilty, I don’t know,” Bebb said.

The state comptroller’s office said the results of that audit were combined with the routine annual drug task force audit.

“There were undocumented expenditures, however, the comptroller’s office didn’t say there was missing money or money that was basically stolen by Mike Hall or anyone else at the DTF office,” Hatchett said.

He noted that a special prosecutor took evidence to a grand jury, which declined to return an indictment.

Auditors also found that Hall also was doubly reimbursed for some $300 in expenses that were authorized on travel vouchers and also paid for by credit card.

The auditors recommended that Hall be asked to repay the double-dipping. But in July, the state comptroller’s office told the Times Free Press in an email, “We were informed that this former director moved out-of-state, and that the district deemed the $311 as uncollectible.”

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    Steve Lawson, 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force director
    Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Turnaround

Hall’s replacement, Steve Lawson, said he has pulled in the reins on spending.

The 2011 audit, released in July, noted only two items: Assistant District Attorney Dallas Scott’s failure to document business travel, and a single instance where an agent didn’t properly document a seizure in a drug case. The drug task force returned the money, the audit shows.

Lawson has been in Bradley County law enforcement his whole life and is the son of a sheriff. He ran for sheriff in 2010 but lost to Jim Ruth.

In interviews earlier this year, Lawson described some of the steps he’s taken to curb spending.

“I think I’ve improved a lot,” he said.

On his watch, he said, every credit card purchase must be logged and documented. Gas card purchases must record mileage and which vehicle is being fueled.

The task force got a new phone contract and now sells all seized vehicles online rather than in local auctions, which Lawson said is a better deal for the agency.

More broadly, he said, he works to make sure oversight and communication are strong both up and down the line.

“I want checks and balances in place,” he said. “We’re still responsible to the people we work for, the 10th Judicial District.”

Contact staff write Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Subscribe to her on Facebook at Facebook.com/JudyCTFP.

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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