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Around $56,000 is being paid to an attorney hired to help prosecute a past case involving alleged drug trafficking in Seward County.

That news came July 1 when county commissioners voted to pay Caldwell attorney Colin Wood that amount for the hours he spent on the case.

In August 2021, a search warrant was conducted on an aircraft believed to be trafficking drugs into Seward County.

During the search, $600,000 was found and believed to be drug money. Sheriff Gene Ward then went to the Seward County Attorney’s office to begin forfeiture proceedings.

Ward was advised by former County Attorney Don Scott to hire a forfeiture attorney due to current County Attorney Russell Hasenbank being out on leave.

Wood was then acquired and worked diligently for three years on the case, and the court ultimately found the plane owner to be unaware of the money’s illegal nature and statutorily innocent.

At the July 1 commission meeting, Ward said commissioners had documents detailing the amounts needed to pay an outside counsel for work on the case.

“You should have an expense invoice letter and an attorney fee invoice letter for your references,” he said.

Part of the money paid to Wood will come from interest gained on holding the seized funds in an account.

“It was awarded to the county, so I see no other reason to use that money except for help with the payment of the two invoices,” Ward said.

Commissioner Steve Helm asked if there was a contract between Wood and the county, and Ward confirmed there was not.

“We agreed in the beginning if he won, he would get a certain amount, and that was never disclosed,” Ward said. “If he lost, we decided we would talk about it later.”

Commission Chairman Scott Carr advised written contracts need to be a part of such dealings in the future. Ward said that was an understandable request.

“We had to go outside for counsel,” Ward said. “Generally, that’s not the case. Russell was out, and I was directed by Don Scott to go find outside counsel for forfeitures.”

Helm then asked which account the money would come from to pay Wood. Administrator April Warden said she had been asked about that very issue.

“As Sheriff Ward has indicated, he has $29,552.96 in interest from the forfeiture that can be used to reimburse a partial amount of this expense,” Warden said. “The remainder of $26,283.15, you do have in sheriff’s professional services, which you could take that out of. I did look at his budget because I did not want to short him.”

Warden said Ward still had nearly $700,000 of the $1.5 million he was budgeted for the current fiscal year.

“If he stays on track where he’s at now, there would be no issue in taking this money from sheriff professional services,” Warden said. “The other options you do have would be to take it from reserve for claims, and a third option would be to take it from legal counsel budget as well.”

Warden said County Counsel Nathan Foreman’s budget is on track for the end of the fiscal year, and she was not as comfortable taking the money from that budget as she was from sheriff’s professional services or reserve for claims.

“I don’t know how the sheriff feels about it looking at his budget,” Warden said. “I ran that as of (July 1), so that’s through the end of June. That would include the current check run you have this evening too. You’re not even at 50 percent of your budget. If you’re okay with that, I feel very comfortable in advising the commission they could take it from sheriff’s professional services. You could  just put in the motion, and the clerk’s office knows where to take it out of.”

Commissioner Presephoni Fuller made a motion to send Wood payment for his services, with one check for $26.283.15 to come from the sheriff’s professional services account and the other for $29,552.96 to come from the interest gained on the money seized from the incident. Vice Chair Tammy Sutherland-Abbott seconded the motion, and the commission voted unanimously to approve the motion.

Helm continued to advise written agreements need to be made in the future in such situations.

“We are going to have procedures in place between admin and the sheriff’s department where at anytime we retain something, we will have a written agreement that will be approved,” he said.

Warden said work is being done to make that  the case in the future.

“That’s something we talked to legal counsel about, and I think he’ll have a conversation with Sheriff Ward as well,” she said.

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