Pastor Antwan Diggs’ message was no different than that of the phalanx of law enforcement officials standing behind him but his came with a not-so-subtle reminder about ill-gotten gains.
“God takes money from the wicked and stores it up for the righteous,” he said Thursday.
As pastor of Hananiah Lutheran Church in Buffalo, Diggs should know. He and his congregation now worship at 900 Genesee St. in a warehouse that once housed a marijuana grow operation.
Seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2003, the building is just one example of the asset forfeiture and recovery work of federal law enforcement officials in Western New York, an effort that brought in a near-record $53.7 million this year.
Of that, about $31 million was returned to crime victims.
“No one should be able to profit from crime," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard D. Kaufman, head of the forfeiture unit.
This year’s take, announced at a news conference Thursday, is significantly higher than what Kaufman’s unit took in last year – $29.3 million – and the year before – $31.8 million.
And not all of it was cash.
Kaufman said his unit also seized artwork, jewelry, Kittinger furniture, fur coats and large-screen TVs, not to mention a wide range of exotic fish, snakes and other wildlife.
“We recognize our continued obligation to protect and serve," said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., “but we will also take the profit out of crime.”
The heads of several local law enforcement agencies, from Homeland Security to Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the U.S. Postal Service, were on hand to celebrate the recovery.
“We want to show the drug traffickers and others we’re investigating that crime doesn’t pay," said James Burns, head of the DEA’s upstate operations.
For some, like State Police Major Christopher L. Cummings, there’s satisfaction, even joy, in knowing that some of the money and assets recovered from criminals are then turned over to law enforcement.
The state police, he said, have used funding from the program to help pay overtime to troopers working on investigations.
“It’s a tool that’s somewhat enjoyable," Cummings said with a smile.
Prosecutors said the money came from both civil and criminal cases, with some of the biggest sums coming from a public corruption case in Monroe County and a nationwide health care fraud case that started in Buffalo.