Minn. auditor to probe gang cops' Hawaii trip

Six members of the force attended last month's conference at a cost of more than $16,000. The money came from the seizure of property used as part of criminal activities.

The review of the trip will come during the legislative auditor's regular audit of the strike force.

Minnesota's public safety commissioner Michael Campion said through a spokesman that the trip was concerning given the economic times. A St. Paul police union leader attributed the uproar to "law enforcement politics."

Former Gang Strike Force commander Ron Ryan, who retired in October, said investigators have attended the International Conference on Asian Organized Crime and Terrorism for years. This year's conference was held March 22-27 in Honolulu.

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"It was not anything new," he said. "This particular conference happened to be in Hawaii. The real story is the number of major crimes that have been solved in this community because of the networking done at conferences like this."

Next year's conference is set for St. Paul.

Legislative Auditor James Nobles said he will look into the conference spending in response to concerns by legislators and Campion. Nobles expects to issue his findings in five to six weeks. It will focus primarily on "how the Gang Strike Force obtains, secures and uses seized and forfeited money and property," he said.

The Public Safety Department reviewed Gang Strike Force forfeiture accounting practices last fall after "red flags" came up, said agency spokesman Andy Skoogman said.

There had been $340,000 deposited in the Gang Strike Force's forfeiture account Oct. 10, the day Ryan retired. Skoogman said the department review discovered poor record keeping.

In a November memo, Ryan responded that money-handling procedures were established when the task force was created in 1997 and "we have never been advised that these procedures were not acceptable."

Some registrations for the Hawaii conference were approved by Ryan. After Chris Omodt became the unit's commander in January, he asked whether $2,730 in registration fees could be refunded.

"I'm not trying to say that training is a bad thing, but I think sending six people is a little excessive," Omodt said.

The next month, airfare expenses of more than $6,000 were approved by another top official on the force.

The strike force has a budget this year of about $2.2 million. It is comprised of 34 officers from 13 departments.

Paul Meskan, a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy, was among the strike force members to make the trip. He defended it as worthwhile training and noted it was funded by forfeitures, "it wasn't any taxpayers' dollars."

"Drug dealers paid for us to go and get this training," Meskan said.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported the audit details after the trip was disclosed Sunday by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)