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Cambria County DA Office spent thousands in forfeiture funds on food, attorney

The Cambria County District Attorney’s Office used multiple forfeiture accounts to pay at least $13,000 in food-related expenses over the last five years, records obtained by 6 News show. (WJAC)

EBENSBURG – The Cambria County District Attorney’s Office used multiple forfeiture accounts to pay at least $13,000 in food-related expenses over the last five years, records obtained by 6 News show.

Records provided to 6 News also show that District Attorney Kelly Callihan spent more than $10,000 from federal forfeiture dollars to pay for outside counsel to work for the district attorney’s office on two Right-to-Know request appeals this past summer.

The dollar amounts came to light after 6 News began requesting and digging into forfeiture records in January after Johnstown City Manager Arch Liston requested and launched an internal audit of city police funds.

The audit was tasked with looking into money seized from drug busts and how the city accounted for those funds.

Those funds are known as forfeiture funds -- money that can come into a county district attorney’s office through seized assets and then sometimes be provided to local law enforcement agencies.

Liston said at the time of the audit that some of that money appeared to be misallocated.

6 News put in an extensive Right-to-Know request to Callihan’s office to compare the reports.

The city released its findings in April and the city manager said there was no indication of any wrongdoing.

Their investigation ended as 6 News began pursuing the release of forfeiture-related funds.

In Cambria County, some of the forfeiture funds is with the district attorney’s office with hundreds of thousands of dollars kept in multiple accounts.

Molly Tack-Hooper, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said this type of money is “not just supposed to be a slush fund” for district attorneys.

“It’s supposed to advanced their enforcement of the drug laws,” Tack-Hooper said.

Money in forfeiture accounts comes to agencies from cash or property taken in drug busts or other criminal arrests such as murder, theft and gambling.

The funds are designed to be used by law enforcement in Pennsylvania to "help fund future drug and other criminal investigations as well as assist community-based drug and crime-fighting programs,” according to the state attorney general’s website.

“Let me be very clear: Drug dealers should not profit from their criminal enterprise,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.

Those remarks came on a July day outside the Blair County Courthouse during the announcement of a major statewide drug bust. Dubbed the Dragon Heroin Pipeline Bust, Shapiro announced 16 drug dealers facing charges as part of the reported takedown of a $7.8 million heroin pipeline spanning from Philadelphia through Blair and Cambria counties.

6 News asked the attorney general his thoughts on how asset forfeiture funds should be spent.

“I’m not (going to) tell (Blair County District Attorney Rich Consiglio) or (Kelly Callihan) how to spend their money," Shapiro said. "Obviously, there's a state law that dictates and governs the way in which that money ought to be spent and the transparency that goes along with it,” Shapiro said. “I've been an advocate for reform in that process and the legislature just passed a commonsense reform bill and we are going to use the resources that we take from drug dealers to go after other drug dealers.

“It's important that when we take these resources, we put it back to use in the community and use it in a way that makes everyone in the community a bit safer.”

The Cambria County District Attorney’s Office has at least six total forfeiture and non-forfeiture accounts, made up of local, state and federal dollars.

Out of the forfeiture accounts, 6 News was able to get information on three: a local drug asset forfeiture account, a local non-drug account and a federal forfeiture account.

Some of those accounts are audited by Cambria County Controller Ed Cernic and his staff.

“We audit a non-drug forfeiture account and a drug forfeiture account and the DUI Task Force grant,” Cernic said.

But until this year, only the drug forfeiture account was compiled statewide and put into an annual report. Next year, non-drug forfeiture accounts will also be audited.

The Cambria County District Attorney’s Office had nearly $150,000 available in 2014 in drug asset forfeiture funds, according to attorney general’s office forfeiture reports.

Less than half remained in 2015.

The details are scarce statewide, but offers a summation of how money was spent by district attorney’s, including Callihan.

Cambria County’s chief law enforcement officer spent nearly $14,000 in community-based drug and crime fighting programs; $7,300 on confidential case expenditures; and $3,700 on investigative equipment and supplies.

6 News spent months requesting forfeiture records from Callihan’s office.

Most of our requests were initially denied, so we appealed to the Office of Open Records.

In the summer, the open records office granted 6 News forfeiture-related financial records.

6 News compiled data from drug forfeiture, non-drug forfeiture and federal forfeiture records.

In December 2015, the Cambria County District Attorney’s Office had nearly $470,000 between those three funds, district attorney records show.

As of early this summer, $230,000 remained, three quarters of that money in the federal forfeiture account.

In April 2012, the office spent $850 on a staff dinner at Ebensburg Country Club, paid for out of its non-drug forfeiture account.

Between December 2012 and December 2016, the DA’s office spent forfeiture money on at least five catered lunches for office staff. Each one cost at least $375.

All of these charges were paid from the non-drug forfeiture account.

6 News: Would going to staff dinners or throwing catered lunches help the fight with drug and crime problems in a county?

Eugene DePasquale, auditor general: "As someone who is not a prosecutor and who is not a police officer, I think it's important that they would have to answer that."

Since September, 6 News repeatedly asked Callihan to sit with us and explain these expenditures. She did in mid-November.

6 News: "In April 2012, $850 on a staff dinner at Ebensburg Country Club. Again, [it was paid for] of non-drug like most of these would be. Do you recall that meeting? Do you know --"

Callihan: "I don't. Again –-"

6 News: -- "There would be a dinner at the country club?"

Callihan: "No, again I'd have to look."

In December 2015, forfeiture funds were used to pay for another staff dinner at Morris Tavern. It cost $600.

6 News: "Should forfeiture money be spent on that?"

Callihan: "Well, the way I look at it is my staff goes above and beyond. They are very dedicated to their work."

Between August 2011 and May 2017, the district attorney’s office spent more than $10,000 on food out of its non-drug forfeiture account.

The office wrote charges off as pretrial lunches, food during training sessions, luncheons for the office, catered meals and dinners.

Callihan said she did not remember most charged 6 News asked about and did not provide receipts.

She said any and all receipts would be with her accountant.

“In my opinion and the way I look at this -- and it's not improper, there are no regulations regarding this account -- the way I look at it is as a motivator and as a thank-you for their dedication,” Callihan said.

This isn’t the only account where the DA’s office spent money on food.

6 News calculated the office spent at least an additional $3,000 on food out of its drug asset forfeiture account, including $850 at Penn Gables last March.

District attorney records described this payment as a “Narcan meeting.”

6 News: "A luncheon for staff or dinner for staff or a charge of almost $900 for a Narcan meeting at a restaurant, is that -- does that fall under the guidelines from the AG's office for drug asset forfeiture?"

Cernic: "Well, here's what I will tell you. My opinion: No, a lot of those aren't."

Cernic’s office annually audits the drug account and, for the last few years, the non-drug account.

In 2015, the DA’s office spent $31 at Hong Xin Garden and $80 at Vera Bradley.

It was recorded as office supplies and a trial expense.

Cernic said though perhaps questionable, it’s not illegal.

“Do I think it's the right expenditure, no. I don't think it's the right expenditure on those funds. But it's not illegal,” Cernic said.

6 News: "Was the Vera Bradley, were those laptop cases?"

Callihan: "Yes. Anyone who comes on new as an assistant DA, they get a laptop and we purchase them a laptop case. They choose it and we purchase it."

From 2012 to 2016, the DA’s office spent more than $600 on flowers for employees and for funerals out of the non-drug account.

6 News: "Should that have been done?"

DePasquale: "Without knowing all of the specifics, but that doesn't make any sense to me."

6 News: "Forfeiture funds should be used –-"

DePasquale: "Well, know what I'm saying is I don't understand the logic with buying flowers with them."

“Do we need money being spent on drug forfeiture for yoga? Meals? Junkets? Shouldn't this money come from other accounts? This money should be spent to actual curb the drug epidemic,” said John DeBartola, a community activist.

Like 6 News, he filed open records requests on the DA’s forfeiture account.

“This money should be spent to actual curb the drug epidemic,” DeBartola said.

Earlier this year, the DA’s office wrote checks to Elliott Greenleaf twice for legal services.

The payments totaled more than $10,000 to fight open records requests filed by DeBartola and 6 News.

“Why all the subterfuge?” DeBartola asked.

“We specialize in criminal law and this is outside our scope so I felt it was important to get outside counsel,” Callihan said.

County Solicitor Bill Barbin called spending for the current state forfeiture laws a “gray area.”

“It’s not for somebody else to second guess them and that's kind of important,” Barbin said. “At the end of the day, it's what the judges and the Supreme Court decide is what's right and what the final answer is on anything. But our law is set up to give a large amount of discretion to the district attorney.”

Even with the “gray area” some spending caught the eye of Cernic and his staff.

This year, the county controller’s office wrote about its concerns.

“We have asked the Attorney General's Office for assistance in determining the proper use of funds relating to District Attorney's Non-Drug Forfeiture account,” Cernic wrote his 2016 audit of Callihan’s non-drug forfeiture account.

“There is no restrictions for what you can or cannot spend out of the non-drug account,” Callihan said.

“With the problem that we have, these funds should all be dedicated on, on prevention, on trying to help people out, on trying to deal with the criminal aspect,” Cernic said.

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