An awards ceremony with food and trophies for St. George police officers is at the center of a state investigation into how the department's chief spent seized drug money, town officials said.
Mayor Anne Johnston said she was reviewing town bank account records when she noticed discrepancies in how funds were handled, and she said the State Law Enforcement Division determined that a criminal inquiry was needed.
Johnston would not confirm where the money came from or how much was allegedly misused, though two other town officials detailed the allegations. None of it is missing, but it was spent before being deposited into the account, she said.
SLED confirmed Friday that its agents were looking into the St. George Police Department, but a spokesman declined to further discuss the case.
The revelation has again pitted town politicians against each other. Two of them alleged that the investigation was part of Johnston's personal spat with Police Chief Anthony Britt — an account that Johnston rebutted. The politicians said Britt has stoked the mayor's ire since he became chief in 2009 and has struggled to get needed money to improve his police force.
Attempts to contact Britt, who remains on the job, were not successful.
“The police department is being picked on, and I don't know why,” said Mayor Pro Tem Margie Ladson, who leads the Town Council Police Committee. “The chief is an honest man. He's been doing wonders for this town.”
The mayor said she was simply doing her job to make sure that public money is properly spent, not trying to smear Britt's name.
She wanted the probe to remain a secret unless SLED found evidence of wrongdoing, Johnston said, but Ladson brought up the topic during a public council meeting July 8.
“My only concern is to do what's best for this town,” the mayor said. “At my age, 83, I could be sitting at home reading a book. But I'm a staunch believer in service. I'm sorry people see this as a personal vendetta.”
State and federal authorities would not confirm the case's suspected link to the forfeiture of drug money.
SLED spokesman Thom Berry said he couldn't address any specifics, and U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Beth Drake said she couldn't “confirm or deny an investigation at an early phase of any case.”
Like many police departments on the East Coast, St. George helps patrol Interstate 95, considered a pipeline for drug trafficking. Part of the department's patrol area covers the interchange with U.S. Highway 78.
On July 21, for example, police officers spotted a car on an off-ramp and stopped it. Inside they found medical marijuana from Colorado, smoking pipes, marijuana-infused candy, a loaded pistol and $1,600 in cash. Four people were arrested.
Under state and federal guidelines, authorities can seize money found in suspected drug couriers' vehicles and spend it on crime-fighting measures. The practice nationwide has led to some police agencies competing against each other to make large drug busts and pad their budgets with the proceeds.
Historically, some uses of the funds have had only tenuous connections to actual police actions. Top officials in law agencies up and down I-95 often catch flack and sometimes get investigated for how they spend such cash.
In 2005, Colleton County Sheriff Allan Beach was cleared of any criminal charges for how he doled out $6 million in federal seizure funds. That SLED investigation started after questions were raised about his hiring of an Alaska company to provide security at the county's jail.
In Georgia's Camden County, detectives' scrutiny into the spending of $20 million in drug money resulted in no charges for then-Sheriff Bill Smith. He reportedly pumped $3 million into a new sheriff's substation and $250,000 into a scholarship at The Citadel, his alma mater.
In St. George, Johnston pointed out that most of the town's budget is dedicated to the police department.
The town struggles to generate revenue from its tax base, and it has fought to remain current on its payments for town employees' health insurance coverage.
Johnston hopes a change is afoot after a Canadian forestry-equipment manufacturer announced this month its plans to build a plant in the town.
Even with fiscal shortcomings, the mayor said St. George enjoys one of the best police officer-per-resident ratios among similar-size towns. It has 2,084 residents and 10 full-time officers and one part-timer.
Johnston's detractors on council, including Ladson, said Britt has battled to get money for additional employees and upgrades to equipment, including the department's aging fleet of police cruisers. They said problems with violence at area nightclubs, robberies and drug crimes linked to I-95 demand a bigger, better-equipped force.
Ladson said Britt used about $500 to buy food and a trophy for a ceremony for officers and family members around Christmas, an annual tradition. Britt kept the receipts, Ladson said.
But, according to Police Committee members, Johnston thought the funds should have been deposited into a town account so that officials could oversee how they were used. That's something that the council members said Britt didn't want because he thought he would lose the chance to spend it on something that would benefit his officers.
Police Committee member Oscar Odom said the town takes pride in its force for working with other local agencies and the U.S. Department of Justice to combat drug trafficking.
Odom said the current dispute is another example of infighting among town officials during his two decades on the council. He has asked for SLED investigations involving town employees in the past, he said, and vowed to request another one to examine Johnston's own activity.
The mayor said she would invite agents to investigate her “24 hours a day,” because she has nothing to hide.
Four years ago, Johnston opposed Britt's promotion to police chief, Odom added, and instead fought for an outside, higher-paid job candidate.
“This is a personal thing; I have no doubt about it,” Odom said. “But this is 2013, and it's time to do things right.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.