Prosecutors who focus on bad contractors face lack of funding

Updated: Oct. 28, 2019 at 7:56 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Funding is running out for one of North Carolina’s elite group of prosecutors. The Financial Crimes prosecution unit faces an imminent ending as no state or local government has stepped up to secure their future.

Chief Financial Crimes Prosecutor Chuck Spahos said that the one-time funding the team received to start up in 2012 will be depleted in two years.

“We’re over halfway through that funding and it will be a real concern in the next two years,” Spahos said,

“If there’s not another source of funding for us we’re gone.”

The Financial Crimes prosecution team consists of three members that specialize in complex financial cases covering everything from embezzlements, to larceny from government, to contractor fraud. District Attorneys can request their assistance in cases that might be too time consuming or intricate for their current staff.

“They’ve seen what we’ve been able to do, the results we’ve been able to achieve not only for their office but for the victims,” Financial Crime Prosecutor Scott Harkey said.

Since the unit was created in 2012, they have prosecuted about 200 defendants in 50 counties and been awarded nearly $12 million in restitution orders for victims.

But collecting on that money isn’t always easy and Spahos claims North Carolina’s statutes don’t make it any simpler.

Spahos identified two ways in which the way state criminal statutes are currently written that makes their job harder than it has to be, and allows contractors they’re pursuing criminal charges against to escape the full force of the law.

  • Freeze and Seize - Spahos said that North Carolina’s codes for freezing and seizing assets doesn’t work properly. That makes it harder for victims to actually receive the money they’re awarded in restitution. While the financial crimes prosecutors have lead to $12 million in awards, only about $2 million of that has been paid.
  • Felony vs Misdemeanor – There are statutes that have enough teeth to punish people for stealing $100,000 but not the way bad contractors often go about it. Spahos said that current statutes don’t allow to combine the amount of money taken from multiple victims to increase the felony type. It leaves them charging contractors with a Class H felony instead of a Class C felony.

Beyond what they’re able to charge defendants with, Spahos told WBTV they just don’t have the resources to prosecute every case. As a general rule, the financial crime prosecutors don’t pursue misdemeanor cases because it doesn’t offer enough results to be worth their time.

“When you start from a misdemeanor there’s not just much that you’re going to be getting for that victim,” Spahos said.

Additionally, sometimes complaints made to law enforcement aren’t investigated because the case is seen as civil as opposed to criminal.

“I have seen that those cases don’t get investigated and don’t get to us and in fact we do get to a case with a contractor where we find other victims where there had been a report or an attempt to report to law enforcement,” Spahos said.

But Spahos believes that’s not from a lack of empathy but a lack of resources in general for investigating and prosecuting financial crimes.

“We have found our law enforcement partners are hungry for help on these cases and we spend a good bit of our time assisting law enforcement in some of these investigations,” Spahos said.

North Carolina is unique by having this financial prosecution team, according to Spahos, but without a source of funding their future is unclear.

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