Palmview asset forfeiture program may soon be reinstated

The city’s federal asset forfeiture program could soon be reinstated following a suspension last year by the Department of Justice.

Last week, the city received notice from the DOJ directing the city to deposit funds back into the asset forfeiture program account in order to be reinstated, according to City Manager Michael Leo.

“That’s the direction that we’ve been given right now,” Leo said. “If we’re able to comply with that, then we’re hoping that we should be reinstated in the near future.”

City Attorney Eric Flores said that DOJ has asked that approximately 250,000 be reflected in the account, which is used by the police department.

“In the audit that they conducted, that is what they identified as the money that was co-mingled in the previous administration — from 2008 to 2014 — so that’s the amount that they identified,” Flores said, explaining the basis for the amount that is being required. “These amounts were not appropriated according to the program guidelines.”

The DOJ suspended the program in April 2018 pending a review of how funds were utilized.

The federal government stepped in after then-interim City Manager Leo Olivares notified them that the city’s finance department was conducting an audit of the program.

The audit, conducted by Finance Director Rachel Chapa, found that the asset forfeiture funds were being intermingled with the city’s general funds and were being used for ineligible activities.

Additionally, funds from the Texas Attorney General’s Crime Victim Liaison program and other local funds were deposited into the federal program account. Chapter 59 state forfeiture funds, which are also required to be kept separately, were also being deposited into the federal account.

The DOJ as well as the Department of Treasury ultimately reviewed of about eight years of transactions.

Much of the blame for the program’s troubles were placed on former Police Chief Christopher Barrera who was terminated in April 2018. Earlier this year, he filed a lawsuit against the city alleging he was fired for “false reasons.”

Current Police Chief Gilberto Zamora said the asset forfeiture account already holds about $60,000 but Flores said it’s unclear when the city will be able to deposit the remaining funds to meet the required $250,000.

“We weren’t planning for this, for them to come back with this amount, it was definitely an unforeseen circumstance,” he said. “However, under the administration of Mr. Leo and the council, I’m more than confident that Mr. Leo will appropriate the money here soon.”

On Saturday, the city adopted their budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year which reflected a surplus of $150,000.

Flores also noted that the city would have additional revenues and therefore didn’t foresee that allocating the remaining funds to the program would be a big issue.

Aside from the requirement to have $250,000 in the account, city staff also had to undergo asset forfeiture training which they did in late last year.

“Once we allocate the money back in there, that’s it, we’ll start fresh from whenever they reinstate us,” Zamora said. “We’ll start fresh, we’ll start without probation, we’ll start without any issues, any problems.”

“My job is for that to never happen again,” he added.