- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - Coconino County has offered to repay the U.S. Justice Department $700,000 it received for prosecuting drug trafficking cases after an audit found no proof of federal involvement in the cases.

The DOJ’s review, released in 2012, didn’t show federal connections to nearly 200 cases. The county contends that’s because requests from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for local law enforcement officials to stop vehicles that could turn up drugs largely are kept secret.

The county received more than $1 million from the DOJ’s Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative for taking on the cases it says were initiated by the federal government. But auditors said the county didn’t follow the program’s guidelines and have asked for much of the money to be returned, the Arizona Daily Sun reported Tuesday (http://bit.ly/1hSu5H3 ).

County Attorney David Rozema said the county is being punished over a technicality. He questioned why the federal government would have sent nine payments to the county if it had a problem paying for the prosecution of cases stemming from interstate drug trafficking stops.

“This office has already expended substantial resources prosecuting crime that is federal in nature, scope and impact, and this would inflict serious financial harm upon a rural county that can ill afford it,” Rozema wrote in a letter to auditors. “The unfairness of the federal government’s action cannot be overstated.”

Auditors said the fact that the payments were issued doesn’t mean the cases were appropriate for reimbursement.

The county’s offer, recently approved by the Board of Supervisors, doesn’t include payment for 21 cases that county officials say include written evidence of DEA involvement.

It’s unclear whether the federal government will accept the offer. Spokespeople for the DOJ and the DEA didn’t respond to requests for comments Tuesday from The Associated Press.

Arizona Highway Patrol officers made some 1,500 drug trafficking arrests last year, 117 of which were at milepost 200 on Interstate 40 just outside of Flagstaff. Some of those arrests came as a result of what’s called a “whisper stop,” or “walled-off” stop, a tactic used by the DEA when it wants someone known to be trafficking drugs arrested but doesn’t want larger drug organizations to know they’re being watched, the Daily Sun reported.

“It’s a method we use to make successful arrests not just on one traffic stop, but a whole ring of drug dealing that goes far beyond borders,” Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said. He declined to discuss specifics.

DEA requests rarely are documented in officers’ reports of traffic stops, the newspaper reported. Chief Deputy Coconino County Attorney Mike Lessler said it is considered sensitive information that could compromise intelligence for federal officials if divulged.

But the secrecy becomes problematic for county prosecutors when it comes to reimbursement, county officials said. Rozema’s office said it prosecuted 198 cases of federally initiated interstate drug trafficking cases from 2006 to 2008 at a cost of $850,000. Auditors said the DPS cases submitted by the county weren’t allowed under the program’s guidelines and that the county falsely claimed that the DEA was the federal initiating agency on fiscal 2008 applications.

County officials recently met with representatives from the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs, which administers the funding under the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative. The representatives agreed that the county should keep the reimbursements, according to county officials, but auditors did not.

Coconino County Supervisor Liz Archuleta said the Board of Supervisors agreed on a settlement amount so that the county doesn’t risk other federal grant funding.

“A large percentage of our budget is federal funding,” Archuleta said. “We are dependent on federal funds, and that’s one of the reasons we can’t risk alienating the federal government. We’ll pay this just to get out from underneath it, but were going to be asking our members of Congress to help us get it back.”

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