DOJ: Gwinnett sheriff Conway must return $70K new Hellcat sports car

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway demanding that the $69,258 Conway spent on this 2018 Dodge Charger Hellcat — the money came from funds seized in federal drug cases — be returned by the end of the month. (Photo: Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office)

Gwinnett County taxpayers may have to absorb the cost of a nearly $70,000 sports car Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway purchased earlier this year that is primarily being used to transport the sheriff to and from work.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the sheriff demanding that the $69,258 Conway spent on the car — the money came from funds seized in federal drug cases — be returned by the end of the month, the FOX 5 I-Team reported.

The letter calls the 2018 Dodge Charger Hellcat, which has a 707 horsepower, supercharged 6.2-liter engine that reaches speeds of 200 mph, “extravagant” and said that law enforcement should spend seized drug money on items that do not create “the appearance of fraud, waste and abuse.”

But the sheriff “maintains that this vehicle is an appropriate purchase, especially for an agency with a $92 million budget,” Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Shannon Volkodav, spokeswoman for the agency, told the Daily Post.

“We requested the vehicle in February 2018 and made the purchase in April 2018,” Volkodav said. “We had no indication at any time throughout the purchasing process we followed that there was a concern about this vehicle until an investigative reporter contacted the DOJ’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section, who then determined that the purchase did not meet the guidelines for use of equitably shared funds.”

The DOJ had previously approved the purchase, though now said the Hellcat is not being used for its stated use, which Volkodav said “in addition to driving it to and from work,” would be for Conway to “use this vehicle when he participates in field operations, covert and otherwise, with our deputies and for any law enforcement function in which he operates, including traffic stops.”

She said the sheriff was driving the Hellcat “a few days ago” when he stopped an “unsafe driver” on the road.

“This vehicle was (also) selected because it provided the opportunity to expand its use to support our Gwinnett chapter of Beat the Heat Inc., an organization of which we’ve been part since 2010,” Volkodav said. “Our Beat the Heat team provides a great service to the community throughout the year by educating young drivers of the very real dangers of street racing and distracted driving. This vehicle will attract the very audience we want to draw for this important message.”

Though the sheriff’s office has not yet formally responded to the DOJ’s letter — Volkodav said the agency is “exploring all options with the most conservative approach to our budget in mind” — Gwinnett County Communications Director Joe Sorenson said the county “will comply with the Justice Department’s request.”

“Staff is working with the Sheriff’s Office to respond to the Department of Justice regarding the vehicle purchase,” Sorenson said. “We are committed to resolving the matter quickly and will be adding review points in our process for equipment purchased with asset forfeiture funds to make sure we comply with guidelines set forth by the Department of Justice.”

Volkodav said that while the sheriff is “disappointed that the MLARS doesn’t seem to find value” in the agency’s eight-year-long effort to combat street racing and distracted driving, “he’s satisfied knowing that this effort will continue with or without their cooperation.”

“Sheriff Conway has always been a forward thinker and will continue to make decisions with the best interest of his community and staff in mind,” she said.

Until the sheriff’s office returns the money to the Justice Department, it will be unable to use seized federal drug money for any other purchases.

By Isabel Hughes, Gwinnett Daily Post