49 Alabama Sheriffs Hide Jail Food Funds, Flout Open Records Law

I’m looking back in our archives at the same story, written again, and again and again.

Sometimes it ends with the sheriff spending some time in jail.

Other times, it doesn’t.

But always it begins with the food fund.

Under Alabama law, the state gives sheriffs the funds to feed their prisoners, and while the language is a bit fuzzy, it has been interpreted by some to mean that what’s left over goes to the sheriff as a sort of performance bonus.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that it incentivizes sheriffs to starve the inmates in their jails.

Always, it seems, things go bad.

In 2005, a Mobile County grand jury indicted Sheriff Jack Tillman for taking food funds to start a retirement account for himself. Tillman later pleaded guilty to perjury and an ethics violation and gave the money back.

But other sheriffs kept taking.

In 2009, a federal judge briefly jailed Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett after he pocketed $212,000 from the fund while feeding prisoners a truckload of old corn dogs he bought for $500. Breakfast, lunch and dinner — for three months.

But other sheriffs kept taking.

Even though Morgan County remained under a federal court order to spend its jail food money on jail food, Bartlett’s successor, Ana Franklin, stroked herself a $150,000 check which she invested in a shady used car lot run by a felon previously convicted of bank fraud. Franklin was held in contempt of court for violating the federal consent decree and fined $1,000.

But other sheriffs kept taking.

And now comes Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin who, over three years, pocketed at least $750,000 of left over jail food money, according to his reports with the Alabama Ethics Commission. As Reckon’s Connor Sheets has reported, this was around the same time Entrekin bought a $740,000 house in Orange Beach.

And yet, other sheriffs keep taking.

Entrekin has gone on TV multiple times since then to plead his case, all but saying he’s the real victim here, and the national media have hooked onto a story so absurd, of course it came from Alabama.

But here’s the thing: No matter all the times we’ve written this story. No matter all the lawsuits and indictments over jail food. No matter all the human rights do-gooders coming to our state to make us feed our inmates — we still don’t know how deep this problem goes.

And that’s all on the sheriffs — because they can’t follow a simple law, the Alabama Open Records Act.

After the latest funny business in Morgan County, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed sent public records requests to 66 of Alabama’s 67 counties other than Morgan to see how much money those sheriffs were putting in their pockets.

Some county commissions have taken control of jail food service from their sheriffs, and those sheriffs quickly replied that they didn’t have anything to do with it anymore.

Monroe County Sheriff Thomas Tate dutifully turned over his records, even though they showed he had pocketed $110,000 over three years.

Let’s not pass judgment on him for taking the money — at least not now — and instead, give him props for following Alabama’s Open Records Act.

Because 49 sheriffs refused to hand over their records.

Instead, they are now fighting the SCHR and Appleseed in court, trying to keep those documents secret.

According to their court filings, which are mostly identical and appear to be coordinated through the Alabama Sheriffs Association, the sheriffs are arguing that the moment the state sends them the food money it becomes the sheriffs’ personal money and that the check registers and ledgers, cancelled checks and such are all their personal information.

Again, secret.

And of course, they want to keep those records secret, because imagine if the public could see that.

Or worse, imagine if the IRS saw that.

So they’re hiding your money — money that some, if not most, if not all, are putting into their own pockets, using to pay their bills, using to finance their own car payments and second homes at the beach.

And that’s only the second biggest scandal. The first is that to hide it, these sworn law enforcement officers and flouting the law.

I’ve openly questioned before the wisdom of elected sheriffs. That institution is a weird vestigial appendage left over from our English legal ancestry that mixes politics and law enforcement together in a witches’ brew of corruption.

But I’m rethinking things, because this year is an election year, and you will have an opportunity soon.

So go look at the map above this column. If you live in one of those red counties, ask your sheriff whose money it is that he’s putting in their pocket and whose records it is that they keep.

And if they tell you that it’s their own personal business and none of yours, then go to a voting booth this fall and remind them who those records and that money really belongs to.

Source: http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2018/03/49_alabama_sheriffs_flout_open.html