After a 17-month suspension, the U.S. Department of Justice may allow the Palmview Police Department to resume participation in a federal asset forfeiture program.
The Department of Justice suspended Palmview from the program in April 2018, when the city self-reported improper spending by the police department.
“There’s been no penalty. There’s been no fines,” said City Attorney Eric Flores, who discussed the program with the City Council on Tuesday night. “They’ve just asked the city to move some funds back into the asset forfeiture program.”
To fix the problem, Flores said the Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury Department suggested the city transfer roughly $250,000 from the general fund to the asset forfeiture account.
“We’re not paying it back to the DOT or the DOJ, what’s happening is we’re just moving it back to our program,” Flores said. “So that money will be accessible to use instantly by the police department.”
Where the City Council, which is struggling to balance the budget and build a healthy fund balance, will find roughly $250,000 remains unclear.
Money placed in the asset forfeiture account is subject to special restrictions and may only be spent on certain law enforcement expenditures.
“We’re not doing that yet,” said City Manager Michael Leo, referring to the roughly $250,000 transfer. “That’s the option that’s been provided to us.”
Along with transferring the money, the federal government asked Palmview to hold an asset forfeiture training for city personnel.
The federal government wants Palmview to meet both conditions before lifting the suspension, said police Chief Gilberto Zamora.
Officials from the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department reached the roughly $250,000 figure by going “transaction by transaction” to determine whether or not the money had been spent appropriately. They want the city to reimburse the asset forfeiture account for expenditures that didn’t meet program requirements.
Expenditures flagged by city Finance Director Rachel Chapa included transfers from the asset forfeiture account in 2014 and 2015, which allowed Palmview to balance the city budget; travel expenses for non-law enforcement personnel and money spent on city holiday parties, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.
“It’s been already about a year, year-and-a-half that we’ve gone through the process,” Zamora said. “So hopefully everything’s met and we get back reinstated, and moving on.”
The City Council blamed the problems on the prior administration, including former police Chief Chris Barrera, who filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in April.
“And it does put a burden on us,” Flores said. “Yes, our police department is going to benefit by it, but now it’s an unplanned, unforeseen burden that’s suddenly placed on the city at a time when we’re constrained — with budget right around the corner. But I’m pretty optimistic between the city manager, Michael Leo, and his staff that we’re going to find a way to rectify their wrongdoing.”
This article originally appeared in the Friday Sept. 13, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.