Saturday, June 26, 1999

Repairs to quarters
of the top brass

Bullet The issue: The Navy diverted funds from its operational budget to refurbish the residences of three admirals.
Bullet Our view: Congress is justified in keeping close watch on such expenditures.

As a result of the Navy's diversion of $5.5 million from its operational budget to refurbish the residences of three top-ranking admirals -- one of them the home of the commander-in-chief, Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor -- the Senate has voted to require the Pentagon to notify Congress when it spends more than $25,000 on the quarters of an admiral or general.

The Senate Appropriations Committee said the Navy's decision to spend the money from its "operation and maintenance" account instead of from housing funds appeared to be "an attempt to circumvent congressional controls" on spending on the quarters of admirals and generals.

The Navy defended the expenditures but suggested that the diversion would not happen again. A spokeswoman said the Navy took funds for repairs from the operation and maintenance budget because the houses are used for official functions such as receptions.

Nonetheless, when an internal audit early this year turned up the expenditures, Navy officials had second thoughts and decided to use ordinary housing budgets to pay for the renovations.

The Pearl Harbor residence is Nimitz House at Makalapa, quarters for Adm. Archie Clemins. It has been the home of 26 Pacific Fleet commanders, beginning with Chester W. Nimitz, who moved in in December 1941, shortly after the Dec. 7 Japanese attack, when he relieved Husband Kimmel.

The other houses involved are Tingey House at the Washington Navy Yard, built in 1804 and the residence of the chief of naval operations, and Buchanan House at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, built in 1906 and the home of the superintendent.

Nearly $760,000 has been spent upgrading the Makalapa residence since Clemins became Pacific Fleet commander nearly three years ago. He is expected to retire in October.

Last year Frank Hasegawa, a Pearl Harbor housing manager, complained that the Navy had spent $92,000 to refurbish a lanai and rebuild a leaky fishpond at the residence without authorization from Congress.

The Navy pointed to the need for repairs due to the age of the house. It said there were deteriorated walls, hazardous materials, and electrical, plumbing and lighting systems that did not meet standards of current safety codes. In addition, there are historical preservation considerations. At one time a private consultant recommended spending $1.3 million to renovate the house.

All three of the residences in question are old and in need of extensive repairs to keep them habitable. Letting the houses continue to deteriorate would not be acceptable. It would be cheaper to demolish them and replace them with new buildings, but their historical value probably precludes that.

However, Congress is justified in keeping close watch on such expenditures to discourage extravagance and favoritism for the top brass at the expense of junior officers and enlisted personnel.


Property seizures

Bullet The issue: The House has passed a bill to restrict the government's power to seize private property.
Bullet Our view: The current law has been abused and should be corrected.

The government's power to seize private property suspected of being linked to criminal activity is a powerful weapon. It has been used to shut down drug houses quickly and confiscate the cash and cars of drug traffickers.

But the power has been abused, and the law should be revised accordingly.

Because property can be seized under current law simply because police suspect it was involved in wrongdoing, innocent people have been deprived of their property without due process. There is a temptation of abuse by law enforcement agencies hungry for money to supplement tight budgets.

In 1998, the federal government seized about $449 million worth of property through civil and criminal forfeitures, compared with only $27 million in 1985. Some of the proceeds were sent to state and local law enforcement agencies that assisted in investigations.

A bill, introduced by Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and the Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and passed overwhelmingly in the House, would require the federal government to prove with "clear and convincing" evidence the property was eligible for forfeiture if an owner files a legal challenge.

The legislation would also:

Bullet Require officers to prove criminality, not simply allege it. Current law requires property owners to prove they are not connected with the alleged crime.
Bullet Require the government to give owners notice before seizing property. Owners would have 30 days -- compared with the current 10 days -- to challenge a seizure in court.
Bullet Enable a judge to release property to the owner if continued government possession would pose a substantial hardship.
Bullet Allow judges to appoint counsel for poor defendants.
Bullet Let owners sue the government for negligence if their property is lost or damaged.
Bullet Allow some owners of seized cash to receive interest if a judge orders the money returned.

Referring to the current law, Hyde said, "They don't have to convict you. They don't even have to charge you with a crime. But they have your property. This is a throwback to the old Soviet Union, where justice is the justice of the government and the citizen doesn't have a chance."

There is clearly an imbalance in the current law in favor of the government. The bill approved by the House would correct that imbalance.

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