Lancaster Courthouse Vandalism3.jpg

A county worker cleans up broken glass Wednesday, June 30, 2021 after a glass door was broken at the entrance to Lancaster County Courthouse, 50 N. Duke St., in Lancaster city. 

THE ISSUE

“For nearly two years, one of the biggest unanswered questions in Lancaster County was how did $150,000 in cash seized from drug dealers go missing,” LNP | LancasterOnline investigative journalist Carter Walker wrote last Sunday. In June 2020, Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams announced that thousands of dollars were missing from the Lancaster County Drug Task Force safe in a “likely internal theft.” She referred the matter to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General for investigation. A grand jury report released March 15 “describes, in great detail, how the person charged with the thefts allegedly stole not $150,000, but at least $200,000 over a five-year period,” Walker wrote. The report alleges that the theft was carried out by the former head of the Lancaster County Drug Task Force: John Burkhart. Criminal charges have been filed against him.

“All of that money should have been destined for deposit so that it could have been used to help battle the drug epidemic,” the grand jury presentment concluded. “Instead, it went into John Burkhart’s pocket.”

That, of course, is for a criminal jury to decide.

Like everyone accused of a crime in the United States, Burkhart is entitled to due process and a presumption of innocence.

But we have questions related to the case, and they begin with this one: How could anyone have stolen piles of money from a safe in the drug task force office?

Rather easily, it turns out.

The stolen money originated as assets seized in the course of drug investigations through a process known as civil forfeiture. (We’ve previously expressed our deep skepticism about the fairness of that process.)

We must note a few things.

The drug task force is run by the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office.

District Attorney Adams has been in office since January 2020. Not long after taking office, Adams fired Burkhart for allegedly falsifying paperwork in a 2019 drug case.

Adams’ predecessor as district attorney was Craig Stedman, who’s now an elected county judge. If Burkhart’s alleged thefts took place over five years, that means they mostly occurred during Stedman’s tenure as DA.

As Walker reported in 2020, “Stedman consistently argued that a yearly audit by the Lancaster County controller’s office proved forfeiture funds were being managed properly.” But Adams disagreed, pointing out that the yearly audit was “not a true audit in the accounting sense of the term.” Stedman, you may remember, waged a lengthy legal battle to block LNP | LancasterOnline from accessing the county’s civil forfeiture records. He ultimately lost that battle.

The slipshod handling of drug task force funds came to light because LNP | LancasterOnline spent many months scrutinizing the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office and its use of those funds.

Here is what we found eyebrow-raising in the grand jury report:

— The report revealed that pre-forfeiture cash was being kept in envelopes in a large safe in the drug task force office. “The safe had no security cameras watching it, nor was a log kept of when and why it was being opened or by whom,” Walker reported. “And although another detective knew the safe’s combination, Burkhart was the only one regularly accessing it, the report said.”

So, there were no security cameras trained on the safe, even though large sums of money were stashed there? And no log to track who was opening it?

— The grand jury report “also detailed how Burkhart allegedly stole cash when the task force seized funds held in bank accounts,” Walker reported. “Banks holding those funds would issue a check to the county, which in turn would write a new check for the same amount that Burkhart would convert to cash that would be held in the evidence safe.

“Later, when convictions or agreements resulted in a final forfeiture order finalizing the seizure of the cash, Assistant District Attorney Cheryl Ondechek would ask Burkhart to pull the corresponding envelopes from the safe so the cash could be deposited in a county account.”

Why was this process so convoluted? And why did it have to involve cash at all?

As Walker reported, “Burkhart, Ondechek and another employee would count the cash and ready it for deposit. But once the count was finished, no one except Burkhart recorded the grand total, and Burkhart was solely in charge of making the deposit with the county treasurer, the report said.”

So just one person recorded the precise amount of cash that was to be deposited with the county treasurer? And there was no paper trail that could be checked to ensure that everything was in order?

Unbelievably, according to the grand jury report, Walker wrote, “Burkhart did not tell the treasurer’s office what the grand total was either. Instead, he provided ‘ballpark estimates’ of how much cash he would be bringing over.”

In what other government office would ballpark estimates of cash amounts be deemed acceptable?

— The drug task force also kept some evidence in an off-site warehouse. This we found mind-boggling: According to the grand jury report, the district attorney’s office had neglected to ensure that after his firing Burkhart turned over his key to that warehouse — and there were no security cameras then keeping an eye on those accessing the site.

Were the Keystone Kops in charge? The shoddiness of these procedures — if they even can be described as actual procedures — is hard to comprehend.

Our questions don’t end with the matter of the warehouse key.

We also don’t understand why Burkhart was released after his post-arrest hearing on $25,000 unsecured bail. As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin explained, “That meant Burkhart did not have to put up any money and spent no time in jail on the charges.”

As Nephin reported, the same district judge who presided over Burkhart’s post-arrest hearing — Bruce Roth — initially set bail at $1 million for people arrested in September 2020 during protests after a fatal police shooting in Lancaster city; the bail amounts imposed on nine individuals later were drastically reduced.

The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, which is prosecuting Burkhart, had no issue with the bail amount, Nephin reported.

But we’re with county Commissioner Josh Parsons on this. At a prison board meeting at which the subject was raised, Parsons, a former assistant district attorney, said he believed bail “should have been set higher in this case,” which involves very “serious charges that impacted the community.” He is right.

Why would a district judge have faith that someone accused of abusing “his position of public trust to scam and defraud” — as state Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro put it — would show up for subsequent court proceedings? Was it because the accused is a former police detective?

And the most important question of all: Was this fair?

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