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Tuesday, Sep. 2, 2014

Putnam one of 78 counties named in forfeiture suit

Monday, November 22, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- Putnam is one of 78 counties from across the state of Indiana named in a lawsuit filed by Indianapolis law firm Roberts & Bishop.

The suit, which was filed in July but just unsealed in Marion Superior Court, alleges prosecutors in 78 of Indiana's 92 counties have violated a state law that requires seized assets be turned over to Indiana's Common School Fund.

The suit seeks two years' worth of repayment -- about $17 million -- to the Common School Fund from all 78 named counties.

"The lawsuit is frivolous," said Putnam County Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter. "The Attorney General will represent all of the counties, and I expect the lawsuit to be dismissed in short order."

Chris Gambill, forfeiture attorney for Putnam, Owen, Clay, Parke, Vermillion, Vigo and Greene counties, agreed.

"Number one, this is an action alleging fraud," he said. "You have to state specifically what fraud has taken place and what fraudulent acts have occurred. This case is totally devoid of any facts that prove fraud has taken place."

Indiana Code 34-24-1 deals with civil proceedings related to criminal activities. It details what items can be seized and how any seized cash and proceeds from the sale of seized real property are to be distributed.

According to code, any balance left over in a case involving asset forfeiture must be turned over to the Common School Fund -- but that is only after costs of the investigation are paid and if there has been a judgment entered.

"What people don't realize is that many of these cases we're talking about are relatively small," Gambill said. "If you're talking about $5,000 or less, once the costs of the investigation are paid there is rarely any money left over."

Gambill said he has been in contact with Paul Ogden, the attorney handling the case for Roberts & Bishop. Ogden, who maintains a political blog, has accused the prosecutors named in the suit of "policing for profit as opposed to policing to stop criminal activity," as well as "taking money that doesn't belong to them."

Something that can and often does happen, Gambill explained, is that the defendant in a case signs over the seized assets as part of a settlement. In that case, Gambill said, prosecutors are within their rights to use any proceeds to purchase public safety items such as police vehicles or equipment for the fire department.

An ordinance is on the books in Putnam County allowing the prosecutor to make such requests.

"This is all public record," Gambill said. "Putnam County has done its level best to maintain total transparency. These settlements are usually attached to the case records. That's not a law, it doesn't have to be done, but it has become a recommended practice."

Gambill said while he cannot speak for the other 71 counties named in the suit, he is certain that the seven counties he acts as forfeiture attorney for have followed the letter of the law.

"The attorneys who filed the suit sent out requests for forfeiture paperwork going back I don't know how many years," Gambill said. "Prosecutor Bookwalter told them they could come into his office at any time, and that he would make those records available. They have never taken the time to actually come over to Putnam County to inspect records, and I would guess that's something that has probably been repeated all over the state."

Gambill said in any forfeiture case in which Putnam County has been involved, the proper channels have been followed.

"We've filed the cost of investigation forms and the affidavits of distribution," he said.

The suit has now been forwarded to Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller. Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for Zoeller, said the Attorney General's Office was still evaluating the lawsuit, but that an announcement from Zoeller's office could come as early as today.

"There is a state statute that says any time a prosecuting attorney is named in a civil suit, that prosecutor has the right to use the attorney general as his or her legal defense," Corbin said.

The Indiana Common School Fund loans schools money for construction and technology projects. The $17 million figure in the suit is not based on any real numbers, but rather on estimates.

Eighty-nine counties were originally named in the suit, but suits were dismissed against 11 of them when it was revealed they had not done any civil forfeiture actions over the past several years, Ogden's blog said.

"Only one prosecutor in the state, Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Shipman, diligently figures law enforcement costs on every case and regularly cuts a check to the Common School Fund," Ogden said. "We will undoubtedly be dismissing some more -- not because they gave money to the Common School Fund as required by law, but because they didn't do civil forfeiture."