OFF THE WIRE
BY: DON THOMPSON and GREG RISLING
SACRAMENTO, Calif.—The California attorney general's office has been considering a major restructuring to make white collar and cybercrimes its priority after state budget cuts targeted units that focus on gang and drug enforcement, according to a draft strategy document obtained by The Associated Press.
The internal department proposal says units that work with local governments on anti-gang efforts and drug crimes would be eliminated as a way to address an estimated $71 million in budget cuts over the next two fiscal years. Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat elected last year, is seeking to have the money restored or, failing that, wants the Legislature to give her more flexibility in how to implement the budget cuts.
The draft "white paper" proposes that Harris reorganize the office to place a priority on increasingly complex areas of criminal activity ranging from mortgage fraud to cybercrime.
The document was created as a response to a $35 million cut in the current fiscal year budget signed in June by Gov. Jerry Brown and a similar cut projected for the fiscal year that will start next July 1.
The two units targeted by budget cuts would "collapse" and re-emerge under a new California Bureau of State Investigations, according to the draft. It said the change would "eliminate or reduce their functions, and re-prioritize their staffs."
Attorney general spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill said the document obtained by the AP is "an old
version" that was not approved by Harris. She said the document was "characterized by the people who have seen it as not reflective of where we are now." She declined to elaborate on how the office's current thinking differs from the white paper, which is not dated.
"We're continuing to advocate for the ability to have task forces up and down the state that target serious, violent criminals and dangerous gang members," Gledhill said. "We are working with the governor's office on many different proposals and stressing the important work that the department does."
A spokeswoman for the governor, Elizabeth Ashford, said the office would not comment because it is in discussions with the Department of Justice over funding in next year's budget, which Brown will release in January.
The budget Brown signed this summer eliminates general fund money for the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, which targets marijuana, methamphetamine and other drug dealers, as well as those who violate prescription drug laws. It also ends funding for the Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence, which tracks crime trends, investigates major crimes and provides witness protection.
One consequence of cutting those bureaus would be to end the state's involvement in the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a joint program that has existed for decades and has been responsible for ripping out hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of marijuana groves.
The attorney general's office said CAMP is the nation's largest law enforcement task force, with more than 110 local, state and federal agencies participating in the annual crackdown on outdoor marijuana cultivation.
Officials say the task force is responsible for destroying more than 21 million plants since it began in 1983. In just the last seven years, it has confiscated marijuana plants with a wholesale value of $72 billion.
"If some kind of restoration of funds can't be found, we can't support CAMP anymore," said Kent Shaw, acting chief of the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.
As attorney general, Harris oversees the state Department of Justice, which includes the Division of Law Enforcement. Under the division are several bureaus, including Narcotics Enforcement and Investigation and Intelligence. The Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement runs the CAMP program, and its agents head regional task forces that include local prosecutors, probation offices and police and sheriffs' departments.
Local and federal law enforcement officials said the two units facing elimination are vital to fighting drug, gang and other crimes.
The Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement also has been responsible for coordinating arrests of criminal street gangs, including an effort this year to dismantle the Nuestra Familia gang in Northern California.
"The BNE task forces, these are resources we call on when we're going to make a major bust," said Nick Warner, a spokesman for the California State Sheriffs' Association.
He said counties often look to the bureau for help with major crimes or with cleaning up methamphetamine labs.
Last week, bureau agents working with 42 local and federal agencies throughout Southern California arrested 12 members of the Vagos motorcycle club, which law enforcement authorities described as a gang involved in rape, solicitation of murder and other crimes.
"If we see that dry up and go away, we're going to have to regroup," said Keith Kilmer, police chief in San Bernardino, whose officers participated in the sweep. "This type of operation and how frequent we do it and how well we stay on top of it might drop a bit."
State agents are particularly important for rural counties confronting drug, gang and white collar crime, said U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner, the top federal prosecutor in a region covering a third of California from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.
"A lot of these counties just don't have the law enforcement horsepower to do it on their own," said Wagner, who is based in Sacramento. "So that's where a significant reduction in Division of Law Enforcement assets will really, really be felt."
He said the marijuana eradication program likely would continue in some form, perhaps conducted by local and federal agencies, because it is mostly funded with federal grants. California accounted for 72 percent of all the marijuana plants eradicated nationwide in 2009, the last year for which federal statistics were available.
The internal, 10-page draft reflects priorities similar to those Harris has outlined in speeches before and after she was sworn in as attorney general in January, which would change the direction of the Department of Justice she inherited from Brown, a fellow Democrat. A version of the paper was submitted to Brown's office in recent weeks as she lobbies to restore the money or get more flexibility in how to make the cuts. The AP has not seen that second version, and the Department of Justice and governor's office declined to discuss it.
The draft proposes that Harris set new priorities to deal statewide with technological advancements that have "enabled the emergence of crime on a scale not previously seen."
It calls for concentrating the attorney general's crime-fighting resources on mortgage fraud, white collar crimes such as securities fraud, computer crimes and international crimes, primarily those involving members of Mexican cartels smuggling drugs, weapons and people.
It also places a priority on identifying imprisoned gang leaders who are trying to control criminals on the street, in part through mobile devices that are smuggled into state prisons by the thousands each year, sometimes by employees of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The Department of Justice also would provide the "high level of technological expertise" needed by local law enforcement to crack down on criminals who cross local jurisdictional lines, according to the paper.
"DOJ is poised to redefine the Division of Law Enforcement" to make that happen, according to the proposal.
The $35 million to be cut in the current fiscal year represents less than 5 percent of the attorney general's $722 million annual budget. But the budget Brown signed into law in June allocated the cuts in such a way that they target the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and the Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence, meaning the spending cuts cannot be spread around and Harris does not have discretion.
The two bureaus combined have fewer than 400 employees, about 9 percent of the 4,373 employed by the Department of Justice.
The California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, which represents Harris' special agents, supports her efforts, said Coby Pizzotti, a lobbyist for the group.
"We're hearing that the AG is trying to do all she can to mitigate the layoffs by consolidating some offices and doing some reductions in spending and things like that," Pizzotti said.
The internal proposal projects that about 30 percent of Department of Justice agents who are eligible for retirement would retire as part of the plan. All told, it projects that 233 employees would be eliminated, including 107 sworn agents.
The new bureau "would be a streamlined operation, that would allow the State to realize $29 million in general fund savings," according to the draft proposal.
The number of agents assigned to multi-jurisdictional drug task forces would be reduced from 55 to 25, leaving "minimal resources in each task force" but enough to coordinate statewide efforts. That's an improvement from Harris' outlook in June, when she predicted in a news release that the budget cut "will likely eliminate" the task forces.
"These budget cuts handcuff the state Department of Justice's ability to fight gang violence and disrupt the flow of drugs, guns and human beings across our border," Harris said then.
Risling reported from Los Angeles.