Ulster County drama, thy name is URGENT: A public dustup between county comptroller Elliott Auerbach and Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum is unfolding over the fate of about $200,000 in cash seized in drug busts by the multi-agency Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team.
Auerbach has ordered the funds frozen until the law enforcement agencies involved in URGENT can agree on how it should be spent, the Times Herald-Record reports:
Auerbach made the announcement as he released his office's report on the URGENT Program. The investiagtion found that the task force was plagued by mismanagement. “The problem here is not with the law enforcement, it's with the finances and the recordkeeping,” said Auerbach. The comptroller's office launched its probe into the program in June, after the city of Kingston sought “its share” of the forfeiture funds, even though the Kingston Police Department left the program last year. According to Eriole, Kingston claims it is owed as much as $50,000 and that over the course of the program, the team may have distributed as much as $480,000 back into the program.
Forty-five percent of seized money was supposed to be distributed equally among participating agencies, according to the report, but that didn’t happen and neither did other agreed-upon accounting requirements.
It's not the first time the comptroller has frozen URGENT's assets. In March of 2011 -- with URGENT facing a federal probe and its former leader, Lieutenant Tim Matthews of the Kingston Police Department, under investigation for theft of public funds -- Auerbach temporarily brought a halt to URGENT spending.
Before he will release the funds, Auerbach is seeking a clearer agreement between URGENT's member law enforcement agencies about how the money collected by the task force should be spent. In the process, he's made an enemy of the Ulster County sheriff, who recently blasted a preliminary report issued by Auerbach's office as "twelve pages of BS":
Speaking to the Legislature Wednesday, Van Blarcum was blunt in his reply to Auerbach’s opinion.
“Twelve pages of BS and that’s his conclusion. Had he taken the time, he would have found out that I had already done that. I met with the chief of police, the deputy chief of police and we came up with a plan. That plan does not and will not include the county comptroller,” he said.
Longtime political columnist Hugh Reynolds wrote in his Kingston Times column this week that the spat between Auerbach and Van Blarcum was "unheard of (by me, anyway) in the annals of county government." Reynolds suggests that Van Blarcum should cool his jets and accept some civilian oversight:
While the URGENT debate, one complicated by lawyers on both sides, will continue for a while, the sheriff in attacking the comptroller has raised a fundamental issue of civilian control over the armed forces — in this case, the police.
No doubt, the experienced officers supervising URGENT were fully capable of administering the program. “It’s what cops do,” the sheriff said. But that does not suggest that responsible elected officials, town supervisors, mayors, county legislators, the county executive and yea, even the comptroller, should not have oversight.
Ulster County has the lion's share of local political blogs, and they're sure to be humming over this URGENT business as it continues to unfold. A few to keep an eye on: Ulster County Cloakroom, Jon Dogar-Marinesco's Rochester Smokeout blog, and Auerbach's own blog. (The bitchy, hilarious, unabashedly Hein-bashing Ulster County Mojo hasn't been updated since May -- what's up with that, Ulster County political insiders?)
Below: Auerbach's full 136-page report on URGENT, released today.