LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. -
The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department has returned $69,258 after the United States Department of Justice decided the purchase of a Dodge Charger Hellcat was "extravagant."
The car was bought primarily as sheriff Butch Conway's assigned vehicle. It's considered the fastest sedan ever built, with a 707 horsepower engine that can help reach speeds over 200 miles per hour.
Last month, the Justice Department alerted Gwinnett County it was wrong to use $69,258 dollars in federal seized drug funds to buy the car. It also criticized the department for originally promising the car would be used for "undercover and covert operations" when in reality it was to be assigned as the sheriff's regular vehicle.
"I do cringe when people believe that drug asset forfeiture money is being used incorrectly," said Frank Rotondo, the longtime executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. Law enforcement agencies across the state rely on drug funds to buy equipment and pay for training.
"In retrospect, I could say it's an extravagant expense, but only partially," he explained. "I think the sheriff could have gotten a car anyhow. It was just the model of the car."
In fact, the sheriff's department made that same argument, suggesting that it only return the difference between the Hellcat's cost and that of a standard Charger. But in the end, the department agreed to use county tax dollars to cover the full cost of the car.
The sheriff's department insists the purchase was for more than just getting the sheriff back and forth to work. They plan to use the Hellcat as a draw to get young people to show up at the "Beat the Heat" events. That's where law enforcement warns about the dangers of drag racing and distracted driving.
A Gwinnett County spokesman said the sheriff's department transfered money from its taxpayer-funded "vehicle replacement" account to replace the money originally used from the drug asset account for the Hellcat.
But this issue isn't over yet. The Department of Justice notified Gwinnett it has launched an audit of the sheriff's drug asset spending. The county must turn over all documentation justifying every dollar spent going back to 2013.