A few weeks ago, law enforcement officers from all over Arizona descended upon Eastern Arizona College for a training on police standards. Interesting fact? The bad guys paid for the $4,000 event.
State and federal laws allow law enforcement agencies to seize assets used in certain criminal enterprises and to use those proceeds to fight crime.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — or RICO — allows law enforcement agencies to seize cash, homes, cars or anything else of value used in the commission of a crime or purchased with the proceeds from a crime.
Graham County Attorney Scott Bennett said law enforcement officers in the Gila Valley don’t seize assets often, but when they do, the proceeds are put to good use, such as the recent training, which was also attended by prosecutors and officials with the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board.
To put it bluntly, the folks selling drugs in Graham County can’t be compared to the fictional characters of Tony Soprano or Tony Montano from “Scarface.”
“The majority of our dealers are actually working for their addiction. I haven’t seen anyone getting rich,” Bennett said. “The vast majority of people I’ve seen involved are basically working to get their own product.”
They aren’t working for the mafia and they simply don’t have big houses, they aren’t driving fancy cars or carrying expensive weapons, Bennett said. If they’re working for a cartel, he said they are way down on the ladder.
“We’re not interested in forfeiting a guy’s ‘79 Pinto that’s held together with bailing wire and duct tape,” Bennett said.
Records obtained by the Eastern Arizona Courier under Arizona’s Public Records Laws, indicate the value of property seized in any one case has ranged from as low as $586 up to $8,532 over the last five years.
Those same records show law enforcement agencies have used those funds to purchase tactical trauma kits, binoculars, drones, body cameras, photography equipment and firearms.
Opponents of RICO statutes complain they allow officials to seize property without having to prove someone’s guilt and the funds can be misused by law enforcement agencies.
A Virginia-based law firm called The Institute for Justice has given Arizona a D-minus for its civil forfeiture laws.
According to its report, Arizona law enforcement agencies seized at least $643 million in forfeiture revenue from 2000 through 2019, for an average of more than $32 million a year.
In 2012, the Phoenix New Times reported then-Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu used $35,000 in anti-racketeering funds on specialty badges and customized coins in honor of Arizona’s centennial.
And in 2019, state auditors found Babeu mismanaged more than $2 million in so-called racketeering, or RICO, funds.
In 2017, former Pima County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Christopher Radtke was sentenced to one year of probation, a $3,000 fine and 100 hours of community service for misusing $500,000 in RICO money.
He also was banned from seeking work in law enforcement or with Pima County under terms of a plea agreement he reached with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Radtke pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of theft of government property five months after he was indicted on seven felony charges, including one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and six counts of theft.
The indictment alleged Radtke conspired “with persons known and unknown” over five years to circumvent the rules regarding funds generated when law enforcement agencies seize assets during criminal investigations.
An investigation showed Radtke and the others used the money to buy personal items, fund ceremonies and purchase items for a cafe operated by a relative of Radtke.
Last year, a state investigation launched after Radtke’s indictment found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by any current personnel of the department.