Stark County Commission hear arguments against planned composition of asset forfeiture board
In a surprising move at the June 2 County Commission meeting, Stark County Sheriff Corey Lee deviated off agenda and addressed commissioners with a request that his office and the Stark County State’s Attorney Office be precluded from sitting on the forthcoming Asset Forfeiture Board for “conflicts of interest.”
Lee argued that both offices were directly responsible for arrests and prosecutions, respectively, and would be perceived by the public as being incentivized to be partial to law enforcement with rulings.
“Any glimmer of impropriety needs to be as far away from this process as possible, and for good reason,” Lee said. “I totally agree with the new reporting mechanism and it should have been that way years ago. Any time you are seizing people’s property, for whatever reason, you need to be transparent and everything needs to be on the table. So anything we can do to make this look clean, concise and transparent without looking improper is in the best interest of the public and justice.”
Commissioners ultimately tabled further discussions on the matter, but some debate did precede their decision.
Proponents of this practice, called criminal asset forfeiture, contended that the practice centers on confiscating profits or tools of illicit activity in a war on drugs. Once seized the assets go before a court and citizens must prove that the money or tools were obtained legally and were not used in violation of law. Failure to prove said requirements results in law enforcement being authorized to use said funds for equipment or training.
Opponents of asset forfeiture argue that the practice is rife for abuse by local law enforcement agencies and often result in innocent people losing their right to due process.
The asset forfeiture board is a new requirement following mandates outlined when Gov. Doug Burgum signed the new bill into law following the most recent legislative session.
Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, introduced a bill to the House Judiciary Committee in which he called for the elimination of the "perverse incentive" of "policing for profit." The bill passed the House by 55-37 after conference committee amendments outlining further details in reporting from courts, prosecutors and the attorney general on forfeited property. The Senate subsequently passed the bill 43-4 with very limited debate.
“The best part of the new requirements is the reporting mechanism. We have to report certain aspects of this to the state and that’s honestly the way it should be,” Lee said. “What people want this day and age is transparency from their government and this should be documented cleanly and without any perceived bias.”
The new North Dakota bill reforms several aspects of current law and requires a conviction and annual reporting of seized and forfeited property. The bill further raises the standard of proof from beyond a “reasonable doubt” to “clear and convincing evidence” while providing for interjurisdictional prosecution.
The Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning disagreed with the sentiments that his office could not exercise impartiality as a member of the board, citing the composition of other county boards and State’s Attorney Association rulings on the new requirements.
“It’s just making a lot of noise on a matter that has already been thoroughly addressed both by the legislature and the State’s Attorney Association at least a year ago. Those recommendations were discussed concerning the constituency of that board,” Henning said. “All the counties that we checked have the exact same constituency on the board. The policies that were written up in response to these statutory changes were effectively the same and we looked at the ones in Burleigh County, Williams County and three or four others and actually got copies of their plans. If State’s Attorneys in other counties can sit on the board then what’s the concern?”
Henning added, “I was honestly blindsided by the Sheriff’s comments because this matter has already been addressed and I don’t know why he is raising this issue at the time that he is raising it. Sheriff Lee is coming from a place of concern that has never been raised with us in the year since the conversations started and this has been an issue that was widely discussed.”
According to the new board requirements, a citizen of the community must be on the board to represent the voice of the community. In addition to that position, the other two positions of the board suggested by Lee would be composed of the county auditor and a commissioner on the county commission.
Lee said that his offices had received only a single interested party from the community and recommended that Andrew Kordonowy be granted the seat.
Kordonowy is a Belfield native and Dickinson State University alumnus with military service in the United States Army, serving in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He currently is the President of Cerberus Security, LLC. in Dickinson and an active and vocal member of the community.
The commission instead opted to open applications for the position to the public, to prevent any appearances of impropriety and to provide all interested parties an opportunity to apply. Those interested in filling the citizen position on the board should reach out to their respective county commissioners or the Stark County Sheriff’s Office at 701-456-7610.
At the commission meeting Lee stated that the current balance of the asset forfeiture account sits at more than $20,000.
A second issue was raised by the Sheriff concerning a deputy within his department who could potentially lose vacation days under the current county policy and Lee requested that the commission make an extension for the deputy to be allowed to keep his PTO until the end of the year.
Henning notified the commission that the PTO question was one rooted in the county policy and therefore needed to come to a vote, and noted that his offices have faced similar issues.
The commission considered the extension and prior to voting on the matter received clarification from the State's Attorney that the details of the vote would need to specify whether the vote applied to all county offices, some county offices, the Sheriff's Office only or just the individual in question.
The commission ultimately voted to permit an amendment and extension to the PTO restrictions for all county offices.
Following the meeting Kordonowy, the forwarded candidate for the asset forfeiture board, drew the ire of some county officials with the issuing of a Facebook statement in which he included statements concerning the events of the meeting.
"The Legal Council, Tom Henning, doesn't seem concerned and is more interested in interjecting his non-legal opinion into getting his staff raises, which he did days before the COVID finance freeze for the county, allowing them to bank more vacation days, and insisting that everyone that comes in to the courthouse wear a mask, at the county expense, even though he himself isn't wearing one," the post read.
Amanda Engelstad, Stark County Assistant State's Attorney, said that the comments were misleading and appeared as an attempt to sway public opinion.
"When Mr. Kordonowy's name was first brought up at the meeting by the Sheriff, I wasn't aware that he was even in consideration since we haven't discussed the asset forfeiture board composition and it was a surprise to me. I had no opinion one way or the other at the time his name was forwarded by the Sheriff," Engelstad said. "After the comments made on Facebook, which I found to be very misleading about what happened at the commission meeting, I was concerned enough about it to send an email."
Engelstad added, "It's such minuscule thing in the whole scheme of things, so I don't understand the point of Mr. Kordonowy's comments other than to sway some public opinion. It was very misleading. He made a comment about raises being shucked through just prior to financial freezes which wasn't even brought up at the meeting and it is not accurate."
Engelstad pointed to the fact that it was the Sheriff who brought up at the commission meeting the issue PTO issues within his department that he wanted the commission to consider and not a topic raised by Henning.
"There was a deputy or some deputies who were running into some issues with having too much time on the books and they might lose them and asked if that was something we could address," she said. "Mr. Henning simply notified the board that it was a policy and that if they wanted to change it they would have to put it to a vote. So, the Facebook post made it sound like our offices were only concerned with paid time-off for our employees, when that request wasn't raised by us and didn't come from our offices."
Kordonowy responded to questions about his comments on Facebook and took issue with his integrity being questioned without any attempt to speak with him.
"I stand by my comments and if Amanda Engelstad thought they were misleading or untruthful I would hope that she would address it with me so that I could correct the record, but that is yet to be done," Kordonowy said. "The reason I said what I said was because Tom Henning was interjecting his opinion on it solely for his office and not giving his legal opinion on it, which is what he is there to do."
Kordonowy added, "It makes sense to me for the Sheriff's Office to have excess vacation days in the middle of a pandemic when they are having to man personnel and are already short staffed; the courthouse on the hand has been closed for the better part of a month, so it makes no sense to me to have people who have been working from home have access to excess vacation days."
Other commission agenda items discussed will feature in a forthcoming story, concerning the June 10 opening of all county buildings under strict guidelines and a second contract extension being granted to Forsgren for their contracted services.