published on September 10, 2013 - 10:25 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

(AP) — Five Rhode Island law enforcement agencies are faced with an enviable problem: what to do with $230 million forfeited by Google Inc.?

Investigators from local agencies are entitled to the money because they helped a federal investigation into the search engine’s distribution of ads for illegal prescription drug sales. In 2011, Google agreed to forfeit $500 million, and last year the U.S. attorney announced the agencies that helped would receive shares ranging from $5 million to $60 million.

Since then, the Rhode Island agencies have spent or committed tens of millions of dollars in what’s known colloquially as “Google money” to better fund police pensions, buy new police cars, upgrade technology and purchase weapons. They say they’re still working out how to spend well over $100 million that’s left. The windfall comes at an especially fortuitous time as the state and local governments have been grappling with years of budget cuts and underfunded pensions.

The awards represent a staggering sum for the beneficiaries — the Rhode Island attorney general’s office, state police, National Guard and the police departments in North Providence and East Providence.

The attorney general’s office, for example, is entitled to $60 million, more than double its annual budget.

North Providence police are also entitled to the same amount, 10 times its annual budget, according to Police Chief Paul Martellini of Rhode Island.

“It’s an extraordinary amount of money,” he said, adding that he hopes his department will be able to reinstitute some programs that have been cut in recent years, such as community outreach programs and putting an officer in the middle school. Officials are discussing building a new police department, and have already spent around $1.2 million for new vehicles and bought new computers and radios.

“It’ll make it much more efficient to respond to calls. It’s all about the service the public deserves,” Martellini said.

Under the asset forfeiture program, the money can only be spent on things such as investigations, training and equipment, and there are several restrictions.

The U.S. Department of Justice must approve any spending. It made an exception to the rules in January to allow state police and the financially troubled East Providence and North Providence to put a total $85 million of Google money into their underfunded police pension plans.

Besides the pension money, only a small portion of what’s left has been spent. The National Guard is still working on a plan for its $5 million entitlement, said Lt. Col. Peter Parente.

“Everybody is taking a deep breath, trying to do the right thing. Once you spend the money, it’s difficult to go back,” he said.

The attorney general’s office has been approved to spend $3.25 million on computer system upgrades, renovations in one office and other items, said spokeswoman Amy Kempe. To decide how to spend most of its $60 million, it contracted last month with a consulting firm to study its needs for technology and office space.

State police have gotten approval to spend around $5 million of the agency’s $45 million entitlement on new vehicles, said chief administrative officer Maj. Karen Pinch. They’re also buying stun guns and rifles for patrol officers. She said $15 million will go to the pension fund and they’re considering what to do with the rest — including possibly a new barracks.

East Providence was placed under state fiscal oversight in 2011 because its finances were so bad. The Google money has helped put the city on firmer financial footing: $49.2 million of its $60 million entitlement is going to the pension plan, saving the city approximately $2 million per year in contributions.

Police Chief Joseph Tavares said he hopes to dedicate some of the remaining money to domestic violence programs and maybe even set up a youth athletic league. He says it has been tough times for everyone, and the Google money has helped.

“It’s very satisfying as a police chief to be able to acquire the tools to do our job but at the same time being sensitive that it’s not a burden to the taxpayer,” he said. “This windfall goes beyond the police department. It helps the entire city.”

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