Former task force member to be security at judicial center

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Governor's withholding may doom Cyber Crimes Task Force

Because of state fund withholdings by Gov. Jay Nixon, Barry County may soon lose its member of the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, which specializes in tracking down criminals who use the Internet as a way to engage in illicit sexual activity.

Mick Epperly, Barry County sheriff, said Brian Martin, who is employed by the Barry County Sheriff's Office but works mainly with the task force in Joplin, will soon be working security at the Judicial Center in Cassville, as he has filled the vacant position of former D.A.R.E. Officer Larry Stockton.

"[Martin's] salary is funded through a grant, and the money has been approved, but it's sitting on the governor's desk," Epperly said. "I contacted the governor's office and was referred to the Department of Public Safety, and they said they could not tell me if the money would be released or if anything will happen."

State grants follow the fiscal year calendar, from July 1 to June 30 each year, and the task force funding has been withheld since July 1, 2014. This has forced Barry County to pick up Martin's salary, which is about $32,000 annually.

"We are more than six months past not getting funded, so the county has had to pick that up," Epperly said. "Brian will still follow up on some cyber crime tips, and if the grant is funded, maybe he will be rehired on the task force.

"We're waiting for the money to be dispersed, and if it is not, there may not be a task force any more."

Martin processed about 80 cases last year, mainly in Barry, Lawrence and Jasper counties. Epperly said if the deputy position had not been vacant, Martin may have been let go completely.

The Cassville Police Department also has a member on the task force in Det. James Smith, whose salary is paid by the city and reimbursed from the grant funding.

In June 2014, the General Assembly approved $1.5 million to fund all the regional task forces statewide, but the funds are part of about $450 million being withheld by Nixon. The Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, based in Joplin, receives about $200,000 annually.

Scott Holste, Nixon's press secretary, said the budgeting process has been a challenging one in Jefferson City.

"It's important to keep in mind that the budget passed by the General Assembly for the 2015 fiscal year was very much out of balance, and there simply is not enough money coming into the state treasury to pay for all of the expenditures in the legislature's budget," Holste said. "The Governor has a responsibility to keep the budget in balance, and that often requires tough choices and spending restrictions to prevent the growth of government beyond its means."

Holste could not say when, or if, the funding would be released.

"What I can say is that the budget for this year continues to be very challenging," he said.

State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, who was recently named vice chairman of the House Budget Committee, said he hopes the funding will be released by the year's end, and he has written to Nixon asking him to do so.

"These task forces are very effective at apprehending sexual predators," Fitzpatrick wrote in his letter to Nixon. "Obviously, preventing the sexual exploitation of minors is an incredibly important function of law enforcement, and their ability to perform that function is significantly reduced with the absence of this funding."

Fitzpatrick said Nixon is withholding about $450 million after legislators passed, in the beginning of 2014, what they thought would be a balanced budget for fiscal year 2015. A 7 percent dip in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2014 led to a loss of $240 million, and legislators are hoping to make up the shortfall in fiscal year 2015, which is seeing 6 percent revenue growth entering the fourth quarter.

Fitzpatrick said Nixon's withholding of $450 million is a little much, and he thinks there's about $40 million to $50 million that can be distributed.

"I think $450 million is more than we need to withhold, and we can send some of that money out the door for things like the task force," he said.

Fitzpatrick said two years ago, when the state had 10 percent revenue growth and Nixon withheld funds, that withholding did not sit well with legislators and led them to lobby for Amendment 10, which was passed by a 57-43 percent margin on Nov. 4, 2014, and grants the legislature the ability to override withholdings in times of revenue growth.

"This year, revenue is up, but it's not where we need it to be, so the Governor is within his constitutional right to withhold funds," Fitzpatrick said. "There are two schools of thought. The first is that Nixon's withholdings took place before Amendment 10 was passed, so they are not subject to the new amendment. The other school of thought is that the withholdings are ongoing, which makes them subject to Amendment 10. I think there's about $40 or $50 million that we can send out and still be fiscally responsible.

"Even if the Governor had to withhold from somewhere else to be able to send out the task force money, I think that would be a wise choice. Hopefully, the Governor can release the money this year, but until then, everyone should call the Governor's office."

The Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force in 2014 sent two alleged sex offenders in Barry County to be tried on federal counts.

Matthew Casas, 25, of Cassville, was indicted by a grand jury in April 2014 and is facing counts of sexual exploitation of children, distributing child pornography, and possessing child pornography with an intent to distribute.

In September 2014, task force officers arrested Chase Norman, 24, of Cassville, in a sting in Purdy. He is facing two counts of using a means of interstate commerce to entice a minor to engage in illicit sexual activity, and one count of enticement of a minor to produce child pornography.

Epperly said even if the task force collapses due to lack of funding, alleged criminals such as Casas and Norman will be more difficult to catch.

"We've seen Internet crimes against children blossom, and we want to continue to get these predators off the streets," Epperly said. "Most of the task force cases go to the federal level.

"We can still catch these guys, but we will not be as effective as the task force."

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