On a sunny summer afternoon in 2017, District Attorney Craig Stedman joined dozens of legislators, animal-rights advocates and their dogs on Capitol grounds in Harrisburg to celebrate the governor’s signing of Libre’s Law, which strengthened the penalties for animal abuse.
The event was perfectly staged for television cameras and photographers. At one point, Libre, the Boston terrier whose rescue from a Quarryville-area kennel sparked the movement, had his paw dipped in paint and stamped on a copy of the bill.
“Now we’ve got some real teeth — no pun intended — to the laws,” Stedman told a newspaper reporter.
Afterward, Lancaster County’s top prosecutor hopped into a 2016 Toyota Highlander leased with money that had been designated by state law for use fighting drug crimes and drove the nearly 40 miles back home.
Since January 2016, the district attorney has spent more than $21,000 in drug forfeiture proceeds, the largest source of revenue for the county’s taxpayer-supported Drug Task Force, to lease and maintain the sport-utility vehicle, records show.
Stedman has driven the SUV to Harrisburg at least 16 times since the spring of 2017, parking records show. His expense reports show he used the vehicle for district attorney business — attending legislative hearings, meeting with the governor’s staff and taking part in law conferences and training — that was not directly related to drug-law enforcement.
Stedman also sought and received reimbursement for $505.93 in mileage during that time — including $41.73 for the Libre’s Law event — under a county policy that allows employees to recover wear and tear on their personal cars while driving on official business.
Stedman did not respond to a list of specific questions about the lease LNP emailed to him last week. District Attorney's office spokesman Brett Hambright instead issued a lengthy written statement defending the lease but declined to comment on whether Stedman uses the vehicle for personal errands. The office has also declined to provide a copy of the lease, which is with a local Toyota dealership, or say who signed the document. LNP has appealed the denial.
The Lancaster County Board of Commissioners, responding to an inquiry from LNP, said it had been unaware of Stedman’s lease and described it as “improper.”
“We are now learning that he apparently went outside of the County procurement process using drug forfeiture funds to do so and leased a vehicle for his individual use. No other county official has such a vehicle,” the Republican-majority board said in a written statement Monday.
But the lease had been approved by county Controller Brian Hurter in January 2016, according to a document made public late Tuesday afternoon by the district attorney's office.
The board also said it was launching a review of “whether this vehicle was ever used for non-County business purposes as well as the matter of mileage.”
“We need to ensure all payments made in connection with this vehicle were proper,” the commissioners said.
County policy distinguishes between government-owned and personal vehicles to determine how employees are reimbursed. Drivers who use a government fleet vehicle can claim reimbursement for gasoline but not wear and tear. Drivers who use personal vehicles can get reimbursement for wear and tear.
It is unclear why Stedman sought mileage reimbursement for wear and tear on a vehicle he does not own. Hambright described the vehicle as a “work vehicle.”
Stedman’s use of drug forfeiture money to pay for a car lease is rare but not unique among district attorneys in Pennsylvania, an LNP survey of several large or surrounding counties found; the top prosecutor in neighboring Berks County does the same thing.
And the monthly payments of nearly $300 for Stedman’s SUV represent only a small portion of drug forfeiture spending, which tops $1 million a year.
But the lease payments were made at the same time Stedman claimed publicly that the Drug Task Force, which is battling the opioid epidemic and influx of cheap heroin, faces a “funding crisis” and should have a more stable source of financing, most likely in the form of additional taxpayer money.
The use of drug forfeiture money for a vehicle also comes amid a national debate over the propriety of civil asset forfeiture and how the proceeds are spent — details that are hidden from public view in Lancaster County.
The district attorney is fighting LNP’s request to review records of hundreds of thousands of dollars in seized drug-related property here every year. The state Office of Open Records has ordered Stedman to release those records, but the district attorney has appealed to the county Court of Common Pleas and argues the law shields expenditure records from disclosure.
Stedman’s vehicle expenses, though, offer a rare glimpse into the use of drug forfeiture proceeds.
‘On call 24/7’
LNP obtained details of Stedman’s lease and travel in the Toyota SUV using Stedman’s expense reports from the county controller’s office, parking records from the Harrisburg Parking Authority and vehicle information from Carfax.
Controller’s office records show Stedman spent $21,373.32 in drug forfeiture proceeds between January 2016 and November 2018 on the lease, security deposit, registration and inspection of the vehicle. That figure includes a $10,000 initial payment, $1,950 security deposit and recurring monthly payments of nearly $300 for the Highlander, which has a sticker price of about $30,000.
Stedman, who is paid $179,299 a year, was also reimbursed $71.16 from the forfeiture account for a state inspection in December 2017 and $26.45 from the county’s general fund for a tire repair in January 2018, the records show.
The district attorney's office, through its spokesman, defended the lease by pointing out it is paid for directly out of the forfeiture account and not out of the department’s general fund or other taxpayer-funded account.
He also stated that most of the crimes Stedman prosecutes — from DUI to domestic abuse — are related to drug activity in some way, and therefore his spending of forfeiture money on a vehicle to perform his duties is permissible under state law.
“As chief law enforcement officer of the county, the District Attorney is on call 24/7; incidents requiring the DA can take place at any time on any day,” Hambright said in a written response to specific questions from LNP. (Click here to see full statement.)
“This includes calls to crime scenes, police stations and other various locations in the middle of the night, on weekends, and holidays. The DA must always be available to respond regardless of whether these incidents happen during or outside of what most people would define as normal work hours,” Hambright said.
Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, said he believes the forfeiture statute allows prosecutors flexibility in the use of the proceeds, as long as they are not used for personal or political expenses.
“The provisions here are general and without a prohibitive clause attached to it,” Antkowiak said. “The question is does the district attorney have discretion to use these funds for the advancement of the office?
“This is really going to be a question of how much discretion the courts are going to afford district attorneys offices,” he said.
Stedman is the only row officer in Lancaster County in modern history to lease a vehicle for official use, said Larry George, chief clerk to the county commissioners. None of the three commissioners do, either.
“There is a standard procedure in place for County departments when a department needs to procure a vehicle. It involves going through the County Purchasing Department. That apparently was not done here,” the board wrote. “According to County Code, which is the governing law in this case, the Board of Commissioners is the contracting authority for all contracts entered into by County entities. This includes County elected row offices. Therefore, any contract not approved by the Board, including a vehicle lease, is improper.”
Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams told LNP he drives a vehicle paid for out of his county’s fund, a practice he described as acceptable because he is on call around the clock and estimates that 95 percent of crime relates to drug offenses.
Greg Rowe, interim executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association — where Stedman is a member of the executive committee — said it is not uncommon for a county’s top prosecutor to be provided with a vehicle, regardless of how the expense is covered.
“It is important to note that, unfortunately, controlled substances are connected to the vast majority of criminal matters that arise,” Rowe said. “We are aware of district attorneys using forfeiture to support vehicles for official business, such as by using proceeds to pay for the vehicles or by using the forfeited vehicle themselves; in other instances, counties pay for vehicles for official business through the general fund or provide reimbursement for mileage.”
In Allegheny and Dauphin counties, the district attorneys drive cars that are paid for out of general operating budgets and not with forfeiture proceeds, officials said.
In Philadelphia, prosecutors drive vehicles from a city-maintained fleet, a change prompted by District Attorney Larry Krasner. Prior to his election, the office’s prosecutors drove cars seized from drug dealers.
“Just because it’s done widely doesn’t mean it’s a best practice,” said Ben Waxman, a spokesman for Krasner’s office.
Civil asset forfeiture — also called drug forfeiture — allows police to seize cash, vehicles and property used, or suspected to have been used, in drug sales or purchased with proceeds from drug sales. The proceeds from forfeited property fluctuate every year and are used to fund the Drug Task Force here.
To supplement drug forfeiture proceeds, the district attorney has been seeking larger and more permanent contributions from taxpayers in Lancaster County.
“The Lancaster County Drug Task Force — which targets mid- to upper-level dealers and monitors trends in trafficking and drugs of choice — is likely facing a funding crisis in the very near future,” the District Attorney’s Office said in November.
Spokesman Hambright defended the use of drug forfeiture money to pay for a car lease at the same time the district attorney has been seeking more taxpayer money for the drug task force.
“What am I missing here??” Hambright wrote in an email to LNP. “The point of the November post (and plea to the [Board of Commissioners]) is that the DTF needs a sustainable funding stream. The taxpayer already in part supports via the municipal contributions. We called on the BOC to provide some directive (w/ the munis) in establishing something permanently sustainable … What does a $3K/yr expense from drug dealer assets have to do with that??”
The money to lease Stedman’s SUV comes directly from the Drug Task Force’s primary source of revenue. In 2016-17, forfeiture income totaled nearly $642,000.
In 2018, Lancaster County municipalities contributed $448,000 in taxpayer money to the Drug Task Force, records show. The Attorney General’s Office contributes $193,000 a year and the county commissioners allocate $100,000.
Stedman has said $100,000 is not enough funding from the county, especially if law enforcement’s ability to seize assets — the subject of debate in courts across the country — goes away.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously curtailed state and local authorities’ power to seize property, saying it violates the constitutional protection against excessive fines.
University of Pennsylvania law professor Louis Rulli, an expert on civil asset forfeiture, said there is growing concern about the practice because of limited “accountability, transparency, or public scrutiny.”
“While the Pennsylvania legislature has mandated that all forfeiture proceeds be used for the enforcement of the state’s Controlled Substances Drug Act, there is a real question as to whether forfeiture funds are being used as a general funding stream for local prosecutor offices,” Rulli said.
“The leasing of a brand-new and expensive vehicle by a county district attorney, paid with forfeiture funds and used for trips to Harrisburg to attend bill signings, continuing legal education seminars, and trade association meetings, if true, raises serious concerns about the improper use of such funds,” Rulli said. “The Attorney General should promptly scrutinize expenditures like these to see if they violate the law.”