CLEVELAND - Criminals do not give back to the communities they steal from.
At least, not willingly.
Whether they like it or not, the U.S. Marshals make them pay. Literally.
Many people picture the Marshals service catching criminals – and while that is an accurate perception – they just do not know about another important program the Marshals business: asset forfeiture. And it is business.
Housed in the federal building in downtown Cleveland, the U.S. Marshals Service of the Northern District of Ohio not only has about 43 Deputy Marshals, but a handful of people who run the business end.
“It’s not the sexy part of the job. Kicking down the doors is what people want to hear about,” said Denise Bortnick, the Administrative Officer for the Northern District of Ohio.
When a law enforcement agency arrests criminals who profited from their illegal activities, the Marshals’ asset forfeiture division steps in.
“We strip the bad person’s property, assets, money – anything they can prove was bought or taken with bad money,” Bortnick said.
The asset forfeiture division appraises and sells all seized and forfeited property.
“We manage it, preserve it, keep it during entire litigation of the case, and once it’s forfeited, we dispose of it,” Bortnick said. “It’s a strong part of investigations now.”
For the Northern Ohio Marshals, that has included a wide variety of assets, including houses, cars, vessels, restaurants, and bars.
“One airplane once,” Bortnick said.
“Livestock,” chimed in Jessica Bohr, the District Asset Forfeiture Coordinator for the Northern District of Ohio.
But the division does not decide the value of seized property on its own. The program uses establishes practices from private industry to ensure transparency, fairness, and efficiency.
“We have a national contractor,” Bohr said. “They want to make sure it’s legit and sold for what it should be.”
Congress authorized the program in 1984. It is a Department of Justice program that manages the assets that seizing agencies like the DEA or FBI confiscate during investigations. But asset forfeiture is not an investigating agency in itself, so its business is not a conflict of interest.
“Asset forfeiture is really a business.” Bohr characterized it this way: “If we take this, are we going to lose or are we going to take some kind or profit?”
But the program is not about making money. It’s about giving back.
“If there are victims in the case, it’s nice because they can get some funds back in the assets,” Bortnick said.
In some cases, criminals can steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from communities. Asset forfeiture ensures the community does not eat the loss.
“A lot of it is white collar crime,” Bortnick clarified, “crime, sometimes, in state and local governments.”
One such case involves former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, who was convicted on dozens of charges, including corruption and using his office for bribery. Federal prosecutors say Dimora gave people business contracts in exchange for favors, such as additions to his home. An appeal has been filed in his case.
“So that type of case can go on for a decade,” Bortnick said.
The work of the asset forfeiture division may sound like a lot of paperwork, number-crunching, and money-managing, but it also requires a lot of hands-on work with people.
One recent example is in western Ohio, in the town of Lima.
Federal authorities arrested an alleged drug kingpin, accused of using drug money to buy dozens of homes.
Once he was busted, those homes became federal property. The problem is that regular people lived in many of those homes.
This means that Jessica Bohr virtually became their landlord.
“When we take over properties, they become our liabilities and we have to take care of them and pay to fix them,” Bohr said.
The people who live in these homes call her work phone and discuss problems. She said she has learned a lot about having to work with people who, unknowingly, became victims of criminals through no fault of their own.
But the residents will not be able to live in them for long, and the homes must be repaired and auctioned off.
Another of the more notable cases that the Northern Ohio Marshals’ asset forfeiture division handled involved one of the world’s largest and more flawless gems: a 43.51 carat fancy intense yellow diamond.
That diamond was forfeited about seven years ago after Alliance businessman Paul Monea tried to sell it to
FBI agents posing as drug dealers. It is not known how Monea got the diamond or where it came from.
But the asset forfeiture division had the stone appraised and verified as the real thing. It auctioned online for more than $2.8 million. More than $700,000 went back to Alliance Police.
“We handle all the equitable sharing that goes to all the state and local police departments that were part of the investigation or the case at hand,” Bortnick said. “They get a piece of the proceeds and they can decide how to use this money.”
A more recent case where a local department benefited from the asset forfeiture program was in Twinsburg. In 2010, the DEA informed Twinsburg Police about possible drug trafficking in their city.
“They tipped us off to residents in our town that they wanted us to keep an eye on, and our officers did exactly that,” said Twinsburg Police Chief Christopher Noga.
An officer spotted one person of interest driving a car, which had a light out for the rear license plate. The driver had a warrant out in Mayfield Heights.
After pulling her over, officers discovered more than half a million dollars wrapped in dryer sheets and plastic wrap in the car. Noga said criminals think that will keep the K9s from sniffing it out, but they are wrong.
Because Twinsburg Police was working with the DEA, they seized the money and it went into federal forfeiture.
“The Marshals were the clearing house,” Noga said.
Although the arrest happened in 2010, it took until summer 2013 for $432,000 to come back to Twinsburg.
“It’s always nice when we have a case and we can share some of the proceeds with an investigating agency,” Bohr said. “Sharing four hundred thousand on a small department, helping on a small case… It’s a tiny little police department but it can help so much for them.”
“We were very fortunate,” Noga said. “For a suburban department like ours, that’s a once in a lifetime thing, to have forfeited to you a large amount of cash.”
That money goes back to the Twinsburg community in the form of training and equipment for its officers.
“I’m a steward of that money and I want to make sure it’s put to good use through the federal sharing guidelines,” Noga said.
As for equipment, Twinsburg Police are able to upgrade to Summit County’s regional 800 megahertz radio system, which is the same frequency that 80 percent of Summit County law enforcement agencies use. Twinsburg is currently in the process of making that switch.
Twinsburg Police also purchased emergency first aid packs and new first responder gear for its officers and their cruisers that is nearly military specification.
“If there’s an active shooter, the officer has another piece of protective gear they can put on before they have to go in,” Noga said.
That is why the rest of the money, which is not all spent yet, will go toward providing Twinsburg officers with the most advanced training to ensure they are prepared for the challenges of the job.
“You have to have continual education in law enforcement, you can’t be stagnant,” Noga said. “You want to make sure you have the best trained, educated officers out on the streets.”
Noga is quick to point out that he appreciates working with the Marshals’ Violent Fugitive Task Force. Twinsburg has an officer who partners with them to help catch criminals.
“It’s an incredible organization and it starts at the top. Pete Elliott – a great guy. He’s done so many wonderful things,” Noga said about the Northern Ohio Marshals and its supervisor.
But the Marshals' dedication to assisting fellow law enforcement agencies extends beyond arrests and asset forfeiture. In 2008, Twinsburg Police Officer Josh Miktarian was killed in the line of duty. What most people do not know is how the Marshals helped Twinsburg Police.
“We knew we were going to need some counseling right out the door and Pete Elliott offered the Marshals counseling services,” Noga said. “They reached out and, at a very trying and tragic time, he provided something for us that helped on the road to recovery. It’s all Pete and how he runs that Northern District.”
In situations like this, the sense of brotherhood between law enforcement agencies is very clear.
“We both gradauated from Saint Edward… although he graduated way before I did,” Noga said, deliberately emphasizing the word way. “And you can tell him I said that!” he joked.
Overall, the numbers speak for themselves. The asset forfeiture division currently has more than 300 assets in inventory, valued at $14.1 million. So far, the Marshals have been able to share $7.9 million with state and local authorities.
“At the end of the day, asset forfeiture is really keeping the bad guys from getting something good out of it,” Bohr said.
Bortnick may not carry a gun or kick open doors, but asset forfeiture helps right the wrongs that criminals commit.
“It’s the bad guys’ money coming into this program and it is redistributed back to the law enforcements officers to help protect the streets,” she said.
More information can be found at: http://www.usmarshals.gov/district/oh-n/index.html .
[Look for Colin McDermott’s weekly series about the U.S. Marshals of the Northern District of Ohio.]