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Tennessee law enforcement misused seized money, spent $110K on catering, DOJ says

Posted at 9:04 AM, Sep 08, 2017

Tennessee law enforcement misused funds from a program involving seized assets, spending more than $110,000 on catering, a government watchdog report released Thursday found.

The report from the Inspector General for the Department of Justice came weeks after Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved to allow the asset forfeiture program to grow, which former Attorney General Eric Holder scaled back in 2015.

Law enforcement seizes property routinely under the suspicion it is obtained from or for illegal activity. Through the Department of Justice's equitable sharing program, the Justice Department's law enforcement partners can request and spend funds from the seizures for law enforcement purposes.

The report noted law enforcement cannot use the funds for bayonets, weaponized aircraft or food purchases, among other things.

The inspector general report released on Thursday said it had "identified several areas of improvement" with the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security's use of the program. Namely, the report took issue with $112,614 in funds spent on food with just over $110,000 spent on catering from March 2014-March 2016 based on funds from the program.

The report said the Tennessee law enforcement department had no procedure to track equitable sharing requests and no designated account for expenditures. It also cited problems with the department's reports, saying one came late and two came without signatures from Tennessee officials.

The report recommended the Justice Department's criminal division, which helps implement the program, ensure Tennessee law enforcement submits its reports in a timely fashion and with sign-off from the appropriate officials as well as getting Tennessee to establish a system to track the requests and use a dedicated account.

Finally, the inspector general said the Justice Department should have Tennessee "remedy" the prohibited six-figure food expenses.

In its response to the report, the Tennessee Department of Safety said it accepted the recommendations and would reimburse the Department of Justice. The department said the "expenditures were for food and ticket expenses associated with allowable law enforcement banquets and award ceremonies" but that it did not have a correct understanding of what it was allowed to do.

Reached for comment by CNN, Tennessee Department of Safety spokesperson Megan Buell reiterated the department's official response to the inspector general report.

Separately, the Justice Department said it accepted the findings and would resolve the issues the inspector general outlined.

Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein endorsed the program in July, marking yet another divergence from Obama-era Justice Department policies, like phasing out the use of private prisons and advocating a degree of leniency for nonviolent drug offenders.

Many in the law enforcement community hailed Sessions' move as one that would help curb crime, while civil liberty advocates lambasted the decision as an expansion of a program that allows the government to seize property and cash from people without due process.