LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. - It looks like Gwinnett County taxpayers are on the hook for an expensive muscle car bought primarily to get the sheriff back and forth to work.
Longtime Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway has always preferred Dodge Chargers as his official use vehicle, but never a Charger like this one.
The 2018 Dodge Charger Hellcat has a 707 horsepower, supercharged six point two-liter engine, with a top speed of 200 miles per hour. It's considered the fastest sedan ever built. And the feds aren't happy.
In a letter sent to the Sheriff Conway last week, the US Department of Justice pointed out seized drug money cannot be used for “extravagant expenditures” and law enforcement should spend those funds without creating “the appearance of fraud, waste and abuse.” The feds want their $69,258 returned by the end of this month.
So far, the sheriff has not written that check.
"We have not yet responded to that letter and we're examining all our options," explained department spokesperson Shannon Volkodav.
The sheriff has said the car would have a second purpose – provide a draw for the non-profit Beat the Heat program. That's where law enforcement warns young people about the dangers of drag racing and distracted driving, sometimes racing the public in a “safe, controlled environment.”
“We still maintain that this purchase is not an extravagant purchase," insisted Volkodav. "We have very intentional uses for this vehicle."
In the letter, the Justice Department pointed out a concern we raised in our initial report on the Hellcat.
When the sheriff first sought approval to buy the car, his memo to the Gwinnett County administrator did not mention that it would be his official use car or that it would be used in the Beat the Heat program. Instead, it said the Dodge Charger would be used in “undercover/covert operations.”
The Justice Department did not like that, either.
“The stated use," wrote chief program manager Alice Dery, "differs significantly from the vehicle's current and intended use.”
"There was no intention whatsoever to mislead anyone," countered Volkodav. "The verbiage that was used in that memo is the same verbiage used to purchase any vehicle assigned to our Special Investigative Division."
But until the sheriff returns the Hellcat money, the department will be unable to use seized federal drug assets to buy anything else.
The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department's annual budget is $92 million. Last year, the department says $2,907,276.86 in unused money was returned to the general fund.
Gwinnett County Administrator Glenn Stephens issued this statement:
"Staff is working with the Sheriff’s Office to respond to the Department of Justice regarding the vehicle purchase. We are committed to resolving the matter quickly and will be adding review points in our process for equipment purchased with asset forfeiture funds to make sure we comply with guidelines set forth by the Department of Justice. "