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Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Mo. School Board Sues To Claim Drug Money

Mo. School Board Sues To Claim Drug Money

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Kansas City, Mo., school board members have accused the state's law-enforcement agencies of squirreling away millions of dollars of seized drug money that they say rightfully belongs to public schools.

The board filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all Missouri districts last month, charging that over the past 13 years, the law-enforcement agencies have circumvented state forfeiture laws that require all seized drug funds be turned over to schools. The districts contend the agencies kept most of the money themselves, said Mike Matteuzzi, a member of the team of lawyers handling the case.

"We think there is 30 to 40 million dollars that should have gone to schools that instead has bought urban assault weapons and whatever toys the boys [in the law- enforcement agencies] want," Lance Loewenstein, a Kansas City school board member, said in an interview.

Defendants in the case include the state, the Missouri Highway Patrol, and all the county and local governments in Missouri on behalf of their law-enforcement agencies.

The forfeiture law is specifically outlined in the state constitution and was strengthened in 1993, Mr. Matteuzzi said.

But Mary Still, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, the agency representing the defendants, said there were "conflicting interpretations" of the state law.

Though Ms. Still declined to comment further on the lawsuit, she said the defendants were looking for "legislative solutions to define how the money is split."

Newspaper's Role

When Missouri law-enforcement agencies seize drug money, a prosecutor presents the case to a circuit court judge. The judge determines if the funds should be given to public schools or the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

The lawsuit says all of the money should go to public schools.

If the money goes to the DEA, the federal agency typically keeps a small percentage and returns up to 85 percent to the state attorney general's office, which distributes the proceeds to the state law-enforcement agencies, Mr. Matteuzzi said.

Since 1986, schools have received some funds under the forfeiture laws but only a fraction of the total expected, Mr. Matteuzzi said. It is difficult to determine exactly how much money is involved because few agencies have opened their records for inspection, he added.

"Part of what this lawsuit is about is getting access to records," he said.

The Kansas City school board had suspected the problem for a long time, Mr. Loewenstein said, but had no evidence to pursue a lawsuit.

It wasn't until The Kansas City Star broke the story last month that the district decided to act.

State legislators are now considering two proposed amendments to the state constitution to address the situation, Mr. Loewenstein said. One bill would split drug money between schools and state police agencies, with 40 percent of the funds going to the agency that seized it. The other would give 50 percent of the funds to law-enforcement agencies and 50 percent to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, run by local police departments.

Mr. Loewenstein said he opposes both bills because they would reward the agencies for breaking the law.

"This is clearly wrongdoing by a public agency," he charged.

Members of the state House and Senate were surprised to hear of the alleged violations and will begin holding hearings on the issue this week, said Fred Dreiling, the chief of staff to Sen. Harry Wiggins, a Democrat from Kansas City who will oversee the discussions.

"Education is the number-one issue" in Missouri, Mr. Dreiling said. "We need to make sure funds get there. If there is a wrong, we're going to right it."

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Page 13

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