Marshals Service Accused of Wasting Funds on Fancy Furniture, Excess Office Space

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, got tips from whistleblowers. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, got tips from whistleblowers. Flickr user Gage Skidmore

The Assets Forfeiture Fund managed by the U.S. Marshals Service has wasted money on extravagant office space, misspent appropriations and misled congressional overseers, a key senator charged in a Tuesday memorandum to Senate appropriators.

Citing tips from whistleblowers, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, blasted the Marshals Service program for lax spending controls for its headquarters move; mismanagement of its Asset Forfeiture Academy in Houston, Texas; and questionable spending on part –time positions and joint operations with local law enforcement.

The agency may also have misled its parent agency, the Justice Department, Grassley added in a memo dated Sept. 12.

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The Marshals-managed Asset Forfeiture Fund was created in 1984 to help the attorney general administer “the seizure and forfeiture of assets that represent the proceeds of, or were used to facilitate federal crimes,” the memo noted. Managers also administer third-party interest in acquiring the seized property through sharing payments. Congress authorized the attorney general to use the asset fund to offset costs associated with specific investigative expense categories, such as awards for information, purchase of evidence, equipping of conveyances and joint law enforcement operations, it said. Other agencies use the program, including Justice’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the FBI; and U.S. attorneys.

For several years now, Grassley has been monitoring the Marshals’ handling of the asset program appropriation, according to his memo. He stated that he has concluded the agency “spent it contrary to the fund’s authorizing statute, and made questionable representations to the [Judiciary] committee, and likely the Department of Justice. There is a clear need for more robust and consistent oversight of asset forfeiture expenditures.”

For example, in preparing to relocate the program’s headquarters, the marshals “planned to construct personal in-office bathrooms for senior leadership, procure expensive and unnecessary furniture and audio-visual equipment, and provide office space for individuals who do not live or work in the local commuting area,” Grassley wrote.

Whistleblowers reported that “most furniture, including office furniture and TVs, was not reused and may have been discarded. Additionally, USMS reportedly installed television cable in offices of USMS employees who are prohibited by policy from actually using it,” the memo said.

Whistleblowers also cast doubt on the value of the Houston training academy, located in a high-rise adjacent to a USMS office and weapons storage facility; it includes “a classroom that holds 48 student consoles and an instructor podium, a conference room, a business center and a kitchenette/galley.”

But the facility is used only 32 days a year, and, according to Grassley, the agency underreported operating costs and the amount it pays for rent (by nearly $100,000 a year), as well as the amounts it spent on custom granite building materials.

Grassley also suggested that the marshals used the Asset Forfeiture Fund “to fully fund the salaries and expenses of district employees who are not actually fully dedicated to the asset forfeiture mission.”

Overall, the senator wrote, “the agency demonstrated a clear need for significantly more robust oversight of its AFF expenditures.” All this comes at a time when the workload for asset forfeiture has decreased, the memo said.

In a response to Grassley’s queries in August 2016, the agency said it planned “take steps to minimize unnecessary expenditures for the relocation, including reusing certain furniture.” But Grassley found the agency’s responses incomplete and misleading, he wrote.

Asked for comment, a Justice Department spokeswoman told Government Executive, “I can confirm that this letter has been received and is being reviewed, however, the Department of Justice declines further comment.”

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)

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