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District Attorney Heather Adams, speaks to the media during a press conference notifying the public that $150,000 in cash seized during drug investigations is unaccounted for on Monday, June 1, 2020.

Someone stole as much as $150,000 in cash from Lancaster County's Drug Task Force, and the district attorney says it might have been an inside job.

“This appears in every aspect to be an internal theft," said District Attorney Heather Adams.

Adams, speaking to reporters Monday morning, said the discrepancy was discovered by the officer in charge of the task force in late April and confirmed by a subsequent audit. She said she has asked the state attorney general to investigate.

The disclosure is the latest in a series of controversies plaguing the drug task force over the past two years, including a public battle about the unit’s funding and the former district attorney’s use of drug task force money to lease a sports utility vehicle.

In March, the drug task force’s top officer, John Burkhart, was fired for reasons that have not been fully explained. But before his firing, the use of cash and other assets seized from suspected drug dealers to fund the agency's operations - and pay for a leased vehicle - has alarmed civil-liberties advocates.

Adams said she was transferring the case to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

‘Discrepancies’

Adams, who took office in January, said during her campaign for office she promised that the drug task force would be a top priority.

She made significant changes in March, including firing Burkhart, a retired Lancaster city detective who since 2011 led the drug task force. She named a temporary replacement to head the unit.

The detective in charge of the unit on April 20 discovered “discrepancies" in the cash held by the unit and began an audit. The audit revealed that seized cash was connected to “less than a dozen" drug investigations from 2017-2019, but she did not go into details about the cases.

She declined to say during the press conference who had access to the cash or how it was stored. She did, however, say the list was short.

"The money was kept at a secure location at the drug task force (office) with very limited authorized access by certain drug task force personnel," she said.

Public scrutiny

The drug task force, created in 1988, is a countywide law enforcement program run by the district attorney’s office with the goal of investigating and combating drug crime in the county.

The drug task force has been in the public spotlight since September 2018, when LNP | LancasterOnline filed a public records request with the Lancaster County district attorney's office, then headed by Craig Stedman, for civil asset forfeiture records. After more than a year of litigation, the newspaper ultimately gained electronic access to the documents.

In July 2019, LNP | LancasterOnline reporting revealed that undercover drug task force officers paid for and received some type of sexual act during prostitution investigations. At the time of the reporting, the district attorney’s office declined to say whether the undercover detective was disciplined but said “the matter was dealt with,” including an ongoing “reemphasis of training requirements,” according an office spokesman.

The office similarly defended its conduct regarding drug task force cash. Stedman consistently argued that a yearly audit by the Lancaster County controller's office proved forfeiture funds were being managed properly.

On Monday, Adams said the audit is not as reliable as it appears.

“The audit that is performed yearly by the controller’s office is not a true audit in the accounting sense of the term,” she said.

“It simply requires them to list all assets seized, the date of the seizure, what happened to the asset, and then how was that asset put to use. … That is all based on records provided by the district attorney’s office.

“So in no way, shape or form is that a check on evidence held,” she said. "So there’s no way the controller’s office could have discovered this discrepancy.”

Adams outlined steps her office is taking to improve the civil asset forfeiture procedures as a result of the audit and her previous commitments to add transparency. She said she hopes this incident will not tarnish the reputation of the unit and that the community will reserve judgment until the investigation is complete.

“Simply put, my review has discovered lax procedures that allowed for misappropriation,” Adams said. “We have addressed these weaknesses. We are moving forward.”

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