The U.S. Treasury Department recently recommended that Palmview resume participation in a federal asset forfeiture program — a year after an audit revealed administrators spent the money on Christmas parties, gift cards and travel.
Palmview reported problems with the asset forfeiture program last year after conducting an audit. The U.S. Department of Justice directed Palmview to freeze the asset forfeiture accounts in February 2018. A year later, the accounts remain frozen.
Palmview is optimistic the Treasury Department and the Justice Department will allow the police department to resume participation during the next few months.
“As of February 2019, the Department of the Treasury is recommending reinstatement of the program with the City of Palmview and the Palmview Police Department, according to a statement released Wednesday by City Attorney Eric Flores.
Palmview is still waiting on a decision from the Justice Department.
The federal government routinely seizes money and property linked to criminal activity through a process called civil asset forfeiture. After a judge awards the property to the government, federal agencies share the funds with local police departments that provided assistance.
Palmview assigns investigators to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement task forces. When they seize assets from drug traffickers, Palmview receives part of the proceeds.
Rio Grande Valley police departments typically spend the money on capital expenditures and equipment purchases. Federal regulations restrict how departments spend the money.
For years, though, Palmview apparently ignored federal regulations, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.
A report prepared by city Finance Director Rachel Chapa determined that Palmview spent the money on Christmas parties, gift cards and travel for non-police department personnel. Palmview also covered budget deficits with asset forfeiture money.
The city deposited the money in a general-purpose bank account, which meant Palmview couldn’t easily track whether or not expenditures violated federal regulations.
After the audit, Palmview opened new bank accounts and adopted new policies to govern expenditures.
Zamora said the Justice Department is considering several ways to rectify the situation.
Options include permanently ejecting Palmview from the asset forfeiture program; requiring Palmview to repay any misspent money; confiscating all remaining money and starting Palmview from scratch; and allowing the city to proceed with new bank accounts and safeguards.
Ejecting Palmview from the program would deprive the police department of badly needed funds, Zamora said. That could cost Palmview millions and increase the burden on local taxpayers.
“Hopefully they don’t go that route,” Zamora said.
When, exactly, the Justice Department will make a decision remains unclear. The agency didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Zamora said he expects a decision within the next few months.