Drug grant in Bush's cross hairs. Rift over results has Neb. officers defending program

By Jack Thompson
World-Herald Bureau
Copyright 2006 The Omaha World-Herald Company

WASHINGTON- In the Nebraska Panhandle, a special law enforcement task force helped arrest 4,000 people over the last 15 years for drug-related crimes.

In Fremont last month, a similar group arrested two men accused of making hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fake driver's licenses, IDs, Social Security cards and birth certificates.

And in Omaha, a third task force's work recently paid off with federal charges against two men in one of the largest marijuana busts on record. Investigators seized 1,000 pounds of pot, valued at $1 million, $600,000 in cash and 20 vehicles, some of them luxury cars.

These task forces and six others statewide were funded largely by about $1.9 million that Nebraska received this year from the federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program. Iowa is getting $2.7 million this year.

But in the last two years, the Bush administration has sought to eliminate the $500 million program. President Bush's 2007 budget complains that it is "not able to demonstrate an impact on reducing crime."

That has triggered a strong lobbying campaign by sheriffs, police chiefs and others who defend the program. They say it's a key drug-fighting tool -- particularly in the Midwest, where the grants mainly go to tackle highly addictive methamphetamine.

"I'm a huge advocate'' of the program, Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren said. "It's critical in our fight against the distribution of illegal narcotics."

Many members of Congress back the program and have clashed with the administration over proposed cutbacks.

The administration, meanwhile, has its own supporters among conservative and government watchdog groups.

They contend that Congress uses the program to spread goodwill by earmarking money for special law enforcement task forces or programs back home, instead of awarding the money based on merit or need.

"It's a program that isn't necessary," said David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation. "Paying state and local agencies for what they should be doing isn't a net benefit.

"There's virtually no accountability,'' he added. "Agencies get the money, and no one knows what it accomplishes."

Administered by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, the program awards grants to police agencies and drug courts, as well as drug treatment and prevention efforts.

Nebraska lawmakers and state law enforcement officials say they have the numbers to show the program's success.

The Nebraska Crime Commission, which distributes the Byrne grants to nine task forces and other offices, reported that the program in 2005 led to 739 drug distribution arrests, 4,304 arrests for drug possession and 917 other arrests statewide.

Backers say that, with local budgets squeezed, they'd have trouble coming up with the money to replace the Byrne grants if they disappeared.

In all likelihood, drug enforcement would "greatly diminish," said Scottsbluff Police Chief Alex Moreno, who heads a western Nebraska task force primarily funded by the Byrne program.

In 2005, Moreno's group received $230,000 to pay the salaries of seven officers, supply "drug-buy'' money and pay for an auto leasing plan to try to fool criminals.

In Fremont, Deputy Police Chief Stephen Tellatin said that last year, the Byrne-funded task force he heads shut down 20 drug trafficking operations, made 300 drug-related arrests and aided in 20 federal prosecutions.

In Omaha, Warren said a task force backed by the Byrne grant program is the metro area's main means of fighting illegal drugs.
Police need substantial resources, Warren said, to combat large-scale drug distribution rings and cartels.

"These operations are extremely sophisticated, and investigating them can be extremely complicated,'' he said. "Local budgets are strained. It would be difficult to do with just local money."

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., teamed up with Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., to persuade the House to add $50 million to the Byrne program for fiscal year 2007, bringing the proposed total to about $417 million. That's down from $1.2 billion in 2000. The Senate has yet to act.

Terry said he's been convinced by Nebraska and federal law officers that the Byrne program is effective.

Some foes of the program, which began in 1989, say it duplicates other federal anti-drug initiatives. Terry rejected that argument.

"You show me some blue suit in the Justice Department who is out here arresting gang members, then maybe the position of the Justice Department is correct," he said. "But they aren't here. It's our police officers. It's the task forces."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees the Justice Department, said he's confident Congress will keep the program alive and provide solid funding.

"There's hardly a town hall meeting that the issue doesn't come up," Grassley said. "It's tiring the administration doesn't get the word. We can't let the thugs win. And if we don't fund the Byrne grants, we'll have fewer people fighting the drug war."

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