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‘Donations from defendants went into restricted drug fund

Posted: September 21, 2012 7:34 p.m.
Updated: September 24, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Suspended Camden City Attorney Charles Cushman is charged with misconduct in office, accused of dismissing charges against municipal court defendants in exchange for “donations” into the Camden City Drug Fund.

That fund is tightly controlled, according to Camden Police Department (CPD) Chief Joe Floyd and City Manager Kevin Bronson. It is also a fund that has been around for a long time.

“It was in place long before I got here,” Floyd said Friday during a joint interview with Bronson at Camden City Hall. “You’ll probably find them at every police department -- not just in the state, but all across the U.S.”

Floyd said Capt. Russ Morgan, who represents the CPD at Camden Municipal Court, said drug funds have existed for all of his more than 30 years in law enforcement.

Such funds were established under federal government seizure statutes, Floyd said, detailing not only how they may be funded, but what such money can be used for. He said the federal statute allows the proceeds from seizures to fund law enforcement efforts. In this case, cash or the proceeds from seized property in drug cases can fund drug enforcement efforts. South Carolina state statutes also allow drug seizure proceeds to fund drug education.

Thursday, Asst. City Manager Mel Pearson, who also acts as the city’s finance director, said the drug fund balance currently stands at $18,287.

Floyd said the CPD would have to go back and track to see how much money has flowed through the account between Jan. 1, 2005, and Dec. 31, 2011. That is the time frame during which the S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED) believes Cushman dismissed charges in exchange for “donations” into the drug fund account.

“The balance usually averages around $20,000 a year,” Floyd said.

Floyd and Bronson both said they did not know why SLED chose the January 2005 start date for its investigation. Floyd confirmed that SLED first approached the CPD in mid-December, asking for drug fund records. He said agents also met with Camden Clerk of Court Belinda Davis, asking for records of CPD cases involving jury trial requests.

Floyd said that those jury trials were the only CPD cases Cushman handled in municipal court. He estimated that the CPD averages 2,200 cases a year and that -- again, on average -- 22 of those are handled by Cushman. Morgan and other officers deal with the remainder.

Bronson said that while the drug fund is not a budgeted item, it is included in the city’s annual audit. Looking at the city’s Fiscal Year 2010-2011 audit, Bronson stated that the starting balance of the fund was $47,172 and ended that fiscal year at $29,019. Floyd said the $47,000 figure likely included “encumbered” funds.

“Money goes in under seizures, but is encumbered,” he said. “We can’t use it until the disposition of the case. We may have only had access to $20,000 at that time.”

Floyd said very few of those cases were tied to drug arrests. Checking in with Morgan by phone, Floyd said that CPD officers have made 249 drug arrests that ended up in municipal court since January 2005. All of them were arrests for simple possession of marijuana.

Floyd said it might be difficult to find out how much of the money that has flowed through the drug fund account during the seven years in question came from Cushman’s deals with any defendants, including those facing drug charges.

“It’s not something that is reported in the audit,” Floyd said. “It would probably have to be researched through court administration.”

“And may get into the facts of the case (against Cushman) so, of course, we would rather not talk about it,” Bronson added.

Bronson did explain that the Camden City Drug Fund is a “special revenue fund.” That is not only because of the statutes, but also because of how the city maintains control of disbursing those funds to the CPD.

“To use the funds, the police department has to make a request through the finance department,” Bronson said. “It required two of three signatures: mine, Mel Pearson’s or Assistant Finance Director Debra Courtney. If they want a piece of surveillance equipment and want to use drug funds to pay for it, they have to make that request -- it’s our internal control.

“This is done so the CPD doesn’t have a checking account on the side and to properly account for the funds to our citizens and the auditors. We maintain control.”

Floyd said the CPD also requests cash from the funds for undercover drug buys.

“Our auditors look at all of that, every year,” Bronson said of both the cash payouts and purchases made from the drug fund. “I believe our auditors look at all the transactions in our special accounts, including the drug fund.”

That is different, he said, than the way the auditor looks at the most of the city’s finances, where they randomly sample transactions to audit.

After each year’s audit, the auditing firm makes a presentation to council both in work session and regular meeting to ensure the public hears the results. Council is presented with copies of the audit.

Mayor Jeffrey Graham and council members Willard Polk and Alfred Mae Drakeford said they were unaware of the fund’s existence prior to Cushman’s arrest. They also said they were unaware of the practice of dismissing municipal court charges in return for contributions to the drug fund.

Councilmen Walter Long and Pat Partin were unable to be reached for comment Friday.

When asked if anyone else in city government knew of the “donations” to the drug fund, Bronson said that information would go back to SLED’s investigation and the pending case against Cushman.

“It would be improper for me to comment on that,” Bronson said, although he did state that no other employees have been implicated and that he did not expect anyone else to be charged.

He and Floyd also declined to answer questions regarding how many of the 249 drug arrests involved charges dismissed by Cushman, who received those deals and who did not, and what criteria Cushman may have used to determine who would get those deals.

“It’s not that we have something to hide,” Bronson said, “but that we are obligated to protect that (court) process. One day, we may be able to answer those questions.”

Meanwhile, no court dates have been announced for Cushman who remains on unpaid administrative leave from his $50,000 a year city of Camden job. Cushman turned himself in at the Kershaw County Detention Center on Wednesday and was released on a $10,000 personal recognizance bond several hours later. Misconduct in office is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

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