Fact Check: Mayor's DEA statements include inaccuracies

Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin. (Photo provided).

After failing to respond to a request for an interview by The Cortland Voice, Mayor Brian Tobin issued a statement regarding the exit of the city police department from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s local drug task force. The Cortland Voice ran the statement unedited and in its entirety Saturday morning. The statement contained some truths, as well as conflations and inaccuracies. Below is a line by line fact check of Tobin’s statement.

With regard to the City’s decision to end its involvement with the Drug Enforcement Agency task force: This required a city police detective to leave the county frequently and for extended periods of time without local supervision: Accurate-- to a point. 

It is true that a city detective leaves the jurisdiction on a regular basis to work with federal agents outside the County on large drug cases and reports to a federal supervisor while there. However, the trips only occur with the permission of City Police Chief F. Michael Catalano who can and has required the detective to stay in the city when the city caseload was large and staffing low. Catalano told the Common Council and Tobin this at the Tuesday meeting. 

Catalano explained at the meeting he has kept the drug detective at the police station recently as he is currently short staffed. “Right now we’re in a crunch in our own department,” Catalano said. “They (the DEA) give us a lot of leeway. That detective, of course, works here a lot.”

It is also true the city detective works out of the city for “extended periods of time,” although this depends on the definition of “extended.” This reporter has witnessed the detective leave the department halfway through the day to go to the DEA’s Syracuse office in the afternoon. 

While the detective is out of direct supervision in Syracuse and has a federal supervisor, he also reports to City Detective Lt. Michael Strangeway on the progress of his cases and their connection to Cortland. Almost all police officers in the city work alone on patrol or on aspects of investigations, reporting later to their city supervisor.


 It has proven costly in terms of on duty staff time and money: False.

As Catalano explained to the Common Council and Tobin on Tuesday, he has the right to keep the detective in the city if the detective is needed and does so. Catalano also said at the meeting all overtime costs are reimbursed by the DEA, the federal government provides a gas card to offset the cost of travel for the detective and the city has received percentages of confiscated drug money the department has used to purchase equipment it otherwise would have to use tax dollars to pay for.

In a Thursday phone interview Strangeway noted the city department received $50,000 in drug forfeiture cash since January 2018 and was expecting to receive an additional $10,500 from a pending case. The future payout is now in jeopardy with the exit of the city department from the federal task force, Strangeway said.

At the meeting Tuesday and in a Thursday interview, Fourth Ward Alderman John Bennett expressed concerns over potential city liability if the detective were injured on a case in Syracuse, as well as over the wear and tear on the detective’s vehicle traveling to and from Syracuse. Catalano noted at the meeting injury is a danger every city officer faces and the task force detective usually works in a secure office in Syracuse. He also stated the detective’s vehicle receives the same maintenance as the other patrol vehicles and is likely under less wear and tear than the SUVs patrol officers use to respond to calls in the city. 


Since it is the desire of city officials to aggressively fight the use of illegal drugs locally, by not renewing the MOU a detective in charge of drug investigations will go from being present part-time to full-time to better address local enforcement: Conflation.


As stated above, the detective cannot leave without Catalano’s permission and Catalano states he directs the detective to stay in the city as needed. Strangeway also told the Council Tuesday the city detective is able to turn the attention of the federal government to issues within his home jurisdiction when cases are being worked.

“Without a stake in the game that doesn’t happen,” Strangeway told the Common Council.

 The detective is also on call to return to the city in case of a major crime whenever the officer is in Syracuse. 

While what it looks like to “better address local enforcement” is inherently debatable, the city police department contends the DEA partnership is a better method of enforcement as it targets the suppliers of drugs before the drugs reach Cortland’s city limits. 

When discussing drugs within the city, Strangeway told the Council Tuesday that Cortland’s dealers receive supplies from larger cities such as Syracuse, which they then sell in Cortland. Most of the local dealers are addicts looking to support their addiction by selling drugs on the side, he told the Council.

“Cortland is not a source of supply city or county,” Strangeway said Tuesday, referring to one DEA case that led to the seizure of 62,000 bags of heroin in Syracuse. “That makes a difference in what’s available to people going up there and getting narcotics.”

Catalano and Strangeway also pointed out to the Council on Tuesday the partnership provides the city department with important tools it otherwise would not have, including the ability to arrest individual breaking federal laws-- something only federal agents can do.

This power led to the arrest and 2018 conviction of five city residents on federal charges of purchasing ingredients to manufacture methamphetamine. A total of 18 people were ultimately convicted as a result of the sweep through Cortland, Broome and Tioga Counties; they could not have been arrested on the charge without the involvement of the federal agency in the task force.

One of the city residents convicted and sentenced to federal prison was Pamela Lackner, 48, who was previously arrested on state charges in 2017 after a meth lab in her attic exploded across the street from then-Parker Elementary School.

Following the arrests, meth manufacturing in the city plunged dramatically, Strangeway told the Council on Tuesday.

From 2014 to 2017, city meth labs totaled between 33 and 39 a year, Strangeway explained. After the sweep, meth labs dropped to 10 in 2018 and are in the single digits so far this year.

This topic was brought to council several months ago to give plenty of time for consideration and discussion before a decision needed to be made: True 

Catalano and Strangeway were called into an executive session of the Common Council on March 5, presumably to discuss the MOU with the DEA task force. However, the discussion was not listed specifically as an agenda item and was not discussed publicly; the Council opted to use executive session privilege. The first public discussion of the task force agreement was at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting.


The Drug Enforcement Agency is well funded and staffed, and will continue to do its work: Yes and no.

The DEA has a budget of $3.136 billion in 2019, as well as 4,924 special agents and 5,245 support staff, according to the administration’s website. That is unquestionably a large budget and staff. However, the DEA is a federal agency tasked with protecting the more than 329 million Americans alive in the United States in 2019. Divided out, that is one agent to protect every 66,816 US citizens with a budget of $9.53 for each American.


The DEA will continue to support local efforts- there will be no loss of support for local law enforcement: Untrue.

Strangeway told the Common Council on Tuesday the DEA task force only looks at Cortland cases the Cortland detective brings to the attention of the DEA.

“Without a stake in the game, that doesn’t happen,” he said.


Any implication that the city will be less prepared to fight drug abuse in our city is damaging to the reputation of the DEA and the city police department, and is inaccurate: False.

Whether or not the city finds benefits with the partnership, it cannot arrest drug dealers and manufacturers on federal charges without a federal agency’s involvement, such as the DEA task force. Strangeway and Catalano also noted at the Tuesday Common Council meeting the DEA has access to other tools the city police department does not: wiretaps, a SWAT team to serve warrants and make dangerous arrests, overtime funding for drug investigations and large drug forfeiture funds used to purchase equipment.

“You’re walking away from the resources of the federal government. That’s a big walk away,” Catalano told the Common Council on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t do this as Chief of Police if I didn’t think it had value.”