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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press, Published July 11 2013

US attorney: Proposed lab cuts coming at bad time as western ND crime increases

FARGO — The U.S. attorney in North Dakota said Thursday that proposed cuts in a federal drug prevention program that provides money to crime labs would be a blow to the state because law enforcement is trying to beef up prosecutions in the oil patch.

The Associated Press obtained letters that the director of the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program sent to nine crime labs in the region warning that funding would likely be trimmed in the next fiscal year and possibly eliminated after that. He said it was because of pressure to reduce the federal budget.

Dave Barton, Midwest HIDTA director, said in an interview that total reductions to crime labs in a seven-state area could be as high as $900,000. The North Dakota lab, which has a yearly budget of about $4.65 million, is slated to receive about $78,000 from the program for 2013.

Midwest HIDTA typically grants about $800,000 a year to both North and South Dakota to fund crime labs, numerous drug task forces, special prosecutors and other programs.

Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the North Dakota attorney general's office, which oversees the crime lab, called the letter from Barton a “what if” scenario and had no further comment. U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said the projected cuts come at a “particularly bad time here in North Dakota” because of dramatic increases in drug cases tied to increasing population in western counties.

The U.S. Department of Justice has recently stationed additional FBI agents in Minot and Bismarck and a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent in Bismarck.

“If the sequester cuts continue into fiscal year 2014, there will likely be more unpaid employee furloughs, including at the Department of Justice,” Purdon said. “Unpaid furloughs will mean fewer FBI agents, fewer Border Patrol agents, and fewer federal prosecutors at work every day.”

U.S. District Court statistics show that the total number of federal defendants charged in the southwestern and northwestern regions of North Dakota have grown from 144 in 2010 to 172 in 2011 and 256 in 2012. There have been 205 defendants charged in western North Dakota in the first six months of 2013.

Purdon cites a number of multi-defendant drug cases as a key reason for this year's increase. A federal judge earlier this month unsealed indictments against 22 people charged with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on a western North Dakota Indian reservation, in an investigation dubbed “Operation Winter's End.”

State crime statistics for 2012 are due out in the next two weeks, Brocker said.

Barton acknowledged that North Dakota stands out in the region because of the changing landscape. Recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that Williston, in the far northwestern corner of the state, is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country.

“The increased population is the uniqueness of the Bakken oil field issue,” Barton said. “But each one of the geographic regions has a pressing issue we have to deal with, which makes budget cuts — meat cleaver budget cuts — very difficult for us.”

Jeff Zent, spokesman for Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said it's “difficult to comment about something that hasn't happened,” but cited the state's commitment of $2.9 million to fund 17 law enforcement positions, including investigators, forensic scientists and intelligence analysts. Half of those positions were previously funded by the federal government and half are new jobs.

The governor's budget also included $3.8 million for 15 new Highway Patrol troopers.

“The state is working to help address the growing law enforcement needs,” Zent said.

Two South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation labs are slated to get $26,200 in 2013 HIDTA funding.

Crime labs in other states are at risk of losing money, too, according to the letters from Barton: the Kansas Bureau of Investigation ($192,303 in funding), Iowa Department of Public Safety ($140,000), Missouri State Highway Patrol ($153,574), Kansas City, Mo., Police Department ($133,667), Nebraska State Patrol ($81,539), and St. Louis County Police Department ($70,781).

“The letters were just the final steps in all of our discussions in trying to find where we can painlessly cut. And we can't,” Barton said. “Every cut we make has some pain attached to it.”

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