US Customs in Need of Change

WITH all the boats, planes, cars, and other high-ticket items the US Customs Service seizes from drug smugglers, you would think resale of these properties would net a tidy little sum to help defray drug-enforcement costs. Think again. A new review of the Customs asset forfeiture program reveals the government actually lost money over the past four years, due to those four horsemen of Washington's fiscal apocalypse - mismanagement, waste, fraud, and abuse.

Customs seizes about $1 billion in property a year. In 1985 it ``privatized'' the management of these properties - offering contracts to outside bidders. In a number of instances, reported in the Washington Post this week, the private company overcharged the government for storage and may have auctioned property off at too low a price.

In one case, $91,000 worth of clothes were auctioned for $6,000 while Customs paid $8,000 for storage. Customs paid $3.50 a day for car storage - three times what the Justice Department pays. (Justice makes $270 million a year on its program - dollars plowed back into prison construction.) With $700 towing charges and other ``handling'' costs, Customs loses $200 a car. It's another case of a laissez faire approach taken aggressive advantage of by private business. Guess who pays?

Thankfully, bipartisan disgust in Congress may lead to some changes. A number of positive, tough measures are about to be recommended by a House Ways and Means subcommittee:

Minimum bids on high-value property. No more $70,000 boats auctioned for $10,000.

Better disposal. Currently little is done when an item's storage cost exceeds its value. Don't hold low-value items.

Breaking up the contract structure. One company now handles it all. Why not have car firms handle cars, jewelry concerns handle jewels, and so forth?

In America, even the government ought to turn a profit with free merchandise.

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