Monday, February 24, 2003

Asset forfeiture improved by Web sales

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It took four tries to auction off George Fiorini's Rolls Royce for the bargain price of $17,500.U.S. Marshals tried three times to set a minimum bid of $18,500 for the 1981 Silver Spirit, which was seized during the fraud investigation of the disgraced investment promoter. After dropping the requirement, Fiorini's car sold last week at an Internet auction for $5,000 less than its appraised value.

Still, that's more than officials likely would have gotten the old way: Early morning auctions that few people know about or attend.

Welcome to the newest wave in asset-forfeiture sales: the Internet site, which vastly expands the number of potential bidders. Internet auctions helped the U.S. Marshals Service funnel $4.1 million in 2002 to law enforcement agencies in 48 Ohio counties, including Greater Cincinnati, and parts of Kentucky and Indiana.

"It's the best way to get the most money. All properties are now on the Internet," said U.S. Marshals spokesman Jason Wojdylo. "We decided to take the bid on the Rolls, it came close and that way we don't have to keep paying storage.

"We're getting 25,000 to 50,000 Web site hits in a viewing period," he explained. "You can't get that kind of exposure with an auction in Cincinnati, Ohio."

Items are most commonly seized from convicted drug dealers and white-collar criminals. Current items up for bid include a men's fur coat, a 1984 Morgan yacht, and a modest brick house in Xenia. Bidders remain anonymous to the public.

U.S. Marshals also hit paydirt with a once-popular bar on the west side.

The interstate drug trafficking conviction of William Hornsby last year led to the recent bidding frenzy that concluded Friday for his confiscated Miamitown Lounge in western Hamilton County.

In the shadow of a softball complex, the Miamitown Lounge typically sold more Budweiser in a week than any other area bar, Anheuser-Busch officials told U.S. Marshals.

An initial, unsolicited bid for the bar came in at $176,000. The marshals were surprised. The building is appraised at $100,000. Several bids topped that offer, and Friday was the deadline for the first bidder's final "blind" counter bid. It will be announced in coming weeks. The liquor license isn't included because one is readily available from the state.

If you're not squeamish about wearing a killer's jewels, you can bid on 468 pieces of jewelry that were seized in the murder case of Melissa Vanover. She was sentenced to 28 years to life for killing her boyfriend, Michael Nieman, in 1999 in Miami Township, Hamilton County. The jewelry is being auctioned off in 36 different collections.

Some police agencies laud the asset-forfeiture system, which has paid for a helicopter, boats and drug education programs for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department. "It's saved the taxpayers a lot of money," sheriff's spokesman Steve Barnett said Friday

Others agree but question its application at times.

When he was a prosecutor, Clermont County Sheriff A.J. "Tim" Rodenberg said Friday, "I had a case, a kid with a marijuana roach in the car, which belonged to a relative."

A police official suggested a plea agreement: reduced charges in exchange for the vehicle, citing the forfeiture laws . "We would never do that," Rodenberg said.

As for the loot coming back to the county: "It comes in spurts, but it's not one windfall, maybe a few thousand a year," said Rodenberg.

His department got a free Corvette from the FBI after it was seized from a drug dealer. The car is used in the DARE program.

"But forfeiture laws are being challenged, and I think if the trends continue," he said, "they'll be watered down because of real or perceived wrongs."


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