The future of a local program that prosecutes “cold case” sex offenders was thrown into doubt Wednesday as federal auditors questioned how Jackson County and Kansas City authorities spent federal grant money.
Auditors for the U.S. Department of Justice accused Jackson County prosecutors and Kansas City police of spending, or planning to spend, more than $1.3 million in cold-case grant money on cases that should not have qualified under the grant agreements.
The money, awarded in three grants since 2010, was to have been spent researching violent-crime cold cases closed between 1972 and 2005 for which investigators had retained biological evidence that could be subjected to DNA testing, auditors wrote.
They contended that prosecutors and police used substantial portions of the funds to pursue more recent cases.
Federal authorities planned to “remedy” the disputed amounts, which could include a demand that the funds be repaid. The audit also noted federal authorities could find a better use for $415,829 in unspent funds from a current grant with prosecutors.
Local officials defended their spending as entirely proper and said they met the letter of their contracts with the Justice Department.
Prosecutors faulted the audit for relying on a specific definition of what constitutes a cold case to determine which cases were eligible, even though the definition was not provided to prosecutors until after the audit.
The definition used in the contracts, prosecutors say, was any significant violent crime case “for which all significant leads have been exhausted.” But auditors said that the definition “can be reasonably inferred” to mean crimes committed before suitable DNA technology existed.
Ted Hunt, Jackson County’s chief trial attorney, said the fact that auditors had to use the term “infer” proved the definition that prosecutors were provided was lacking.
“The auditors have unfairly created an entirely new definition, which is completely different from what we and other applicants relied upon,” he said. “Now we’re being punished for not following a nonexistent definition. It’s fundamentally unfair.”
The Office of Inspector General disagreed with the county’s response, saying the grant solicitations made clear both the context for solving cold cases and the definition of cold cases.
“The program is meant to fund cases where limits in DNA technology at the time the crime was committed prevented the investigation from moving forward, not cases where DNA testing … could have been conducted but was not,” the audit says in response to Jackson County.
Kansas City police also disputed the audit, which said 95 percent of the department’s cases weren’t eligible under the grant’s definitions.
“We used the money to investigate cases we felt met the requirements of the grant,” said Capt. Tye Grant, the department’s top spokesman. “The goals we outlined in our application were to identify, review and prioritize violent-crime cold cases, and we did exactly that.”
The DNA cold-case collaboration between prosecutors and police has been a boon to resolving many sex crimes cases that lingered for decades in investigators’ files.
Using analysts funded by the grants, authorities identified dozens of possible serial rapists, including Bernard Jackson, who later was convicted in a series of rapes in Waldo in the 1980s.
Police also were able to attribute other rapes to men, including some who had died or already were serving long prison terms for other assaults.
Jackson County was “one of the most, if not the most, successful recipient in the history of the program,” Hunt said, noting his office had filed 34 criminal cases from the 2010 grant.
But now the program is at risk of being shut down, he said.
The questions on how local authorities spent the federal grant money came in two audits — one for prosecutors and one for police — released Wednesday by the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General.
The prosecutor’s audit looked at two grants totaling $920,353 awarded to the county in 2010 and 2012. The police audit concerned a 2011 grant worth $452,293.
The grants paid the salaries and benefits for three detectives, three cold-case analysts, an investigator and a paralegal.
Auditors found that at least 34 percent of the cases reviewed by the prosecutor’s office were ineligible because they were for crimes committed between 2006 and 2011.
“In our opinion, cases from more recent years are not eligible … because DNA technologies were not a limiting factor for processing biological evidence during the investigation,” auditors wrote.
The National Institute of Justice, which awarded the grants, audited Jackson County’s work two weeks before Department of Justice auditors did and found no fault with Jackson County, according to a letter National Institute of Justice officials sent to prosecutors. That institute was aware of the dates of the cases being worked in Kansas City, Hunt said.
“This is a complete injustice,” Hunt said, adding that his office planned to appeal the audit’s conclusions.