OPNET funding held up in sanctuary cities litigation

Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict

Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict

PORT ANGELES — The Department of Justice is withholding approved funding for the Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team due to litigation of the federal government’s crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities” that shelter undocumented immigrants.

Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict told the Clallam County commissioners Monday he may need to ask the county to help fund two of OPNET’s administrative positions because the DOJ is withholding Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne-JAG) funding for agencies across the country.

Benedict, who emphasized he was elected to a non-partisan position, said in an interview Monday he is less interested in the politics behind the decision and just wants the approximately $125,000 OPNET has already been awarded.

“I’m cautiously optimistic the differences will be settled in Washington, D.C., and it will be settled by the end of the quarter,” he said. “My feeling is one way or another we’re going to fund it.”

Clallam County isn’t a sanctuary county, but the Department of Justice is withholding about $125,000 of approved funding for OPNET anyway.

“The DOJ’s refusal to release the nearly $5 million in funds to Byrne-JAG recipients in Washington state has put the safety our communities at risk,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, said in a recent statement. “The Administration should not be using law enforcement as a political bargaining chip.”

The Trump administration proposed a 22 percent cut to the Byrne-JAG program, but Cantwell and her colleagues secured $339.6 million in funding for Byrne-JAG in the recently-passed omnibus bill, a 1.3 percent increase from the previous year, according to Cantwell’s office.

One of Cantwell’s staffers recently told Smith in an email that Cantwell is working to get DOJ to release the funds.

“I have heard from many, many departments throughout our state that are seeing their successful drug task forces threatened by the DOJ’s refusal to release [fiscal year 2017] awards,” the staffer wrote in a March 19 email. “Unfortunately, DOJ is hiding behind the ongoing litigation over the separate issue of sanctuary jurisdictions and holding all Byrne-JAG recipients hostage.”

The staffer wrote that DOJ has claimed that a recent court injunction prohibits it from releasing the funds, but said that is false.

The Byrne-JAG grant funds a full-time clerical assistant and a part-time analyst for OPNET, which Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said are the “organizational glue” that holds OPNET together.

“We can’t do it without a support staff and the overhead costs,” Smith said. “It’s a modest grant, but it’s a huge deal for us.”

Smith said local officials work well with their federal partners. Together, he said, local and federal officials have been successful in making business more difficult for drug trafficking organizations.

“Whatever the nationwide issues are, we have nothing to do with it,” Smith said. “We’re not part of the controversy that’s held up the Congressional appropriated money.”

Benedict said he is hopeful the issue will be resolved before he needs to ask for funding out of the county’s general fund.

In the meantime though, OPNET is burning through money in the the Drug Fund, he said. The county’s Drug Fund is a dedicated enterprise fund that he said started with $80,000 in seed money but is currently down to $40,000.

“We burn through about $35,000 a quarter,” he said. “I’m not asking for money from the general fund yet.”

Benedict said the majority of the OPNET’s costs are covered by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

The Port Angeles Police Department, Sequim Police Department, Clallam County Sheriff’s Department, Washington State Patrol, U.S. Border Patrol and Homeland Security Investigations each provides agents or detectives, vehicles, overtime and training, Benedict said. Border Patrol provides the building and workplace.

Benedict said law enforcement agencies from Jefferson County are no longer involved with OPNET due to budgetary constraints.

Last year OPNET opened 46 new cases and closed 38. The agency obtained 43 search warrants in those cases and executed 17 different drug raids, according to the PAPD Annual Report.

In all, he said those agreements cost the agencies a combined $750,000. He feels if the federal funding issue isn’t resolved he wouldn’t have a problem finding money to keep OPNET running.

“I wouldn’t be happy if it doesn’t get funded, but I can find that funding,” Benedict said, adding that cuts elsewhere may be necessary.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.

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