Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims is one of nine new sheriffs in Alabama who said their predecessors misspent funds, deleted public records, and destroyed public property before leaving office. (Bob Miller, ProPublica)
Less than a month after Alabama lawmakers changed a Depression-era law that sheriffs used to misappropriate taxpayer dollars designated for feeding people in county jails, AL.com and ProPublica report that sheriffs who lost re-election bids last year "pocketed public money, fudged financial reports, wasted sheriff's office funds, and destroyed or stole public property" before leaving office.
Nine of the 10 sheriffs who won elections against incumbents last year told reporters that their predecessors engaged in subversive behavior ranging from vindictive hazing — like failing to have a badge made for the new sheriff — to unethical and possibly illegal misconduct.
Taking Public Money
AL.com and ProPublica found that at least three outgoing sheriffs took public money, including Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who was exposed last year for taking over $750,000 in jail food funds and buying a $740,000 beach house. Sheriff’s office financial documents show that Entrekin personally received $269,184 worth of checks from sheriff’s office accounts in the six months after he lost the June primary.
The investigation also found that more than $81,000 worth of wire transfers were made from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office’s general fund into former sheriff J. Scott Walls's personal bank accounts — more than $29,000 of it after he lost his re-election bid. Sheriff's office employees said they did not know why the disbursements were made.
And Sheriff Blake Turman of Covington County told reporters that he filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission, and plans to submit a report to local prosecutors, about former sheriff Dennis Meeks's spending during the transition period as well as missing public funds and property.
Destroying Public Property and Wasting Public Funds
Outgoing sheriffs drilled holes through government-issued smartphones, took hard drives out of their successors' computers, and stole or destroyed public records. When Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims took office, the jail's refrigerators and shelves were empty, and some 40 pounds of rice had been poured down a garbage disposal. "It was food that was bought and reimbursed by the state that was bought for the purpose of feeding the inmates," Sheriff Sims told AL.com.
The new sheriffs also reported that their predecessors depleted the sheriff's office's discretionary funds, preventing them from replacing aging equipment like radar detectors and handguns. Former Covington County sheriff Dennis Meeks spent more than $6200 of the sheriff's office funds to buy coloring books, Frisbees, pencils, and other promotional items with his name printed on them.
Outgoing Walker County sheriff Jim Underwood reportedly spent $162,000 in three months after losing his re-election bid in July (about $9000 more than he spent in the preceding 10 months) to purchase things like $9000 worth of black rubber gloves at $69.99 per box and a new washing machine for $13,050. In Marshall County, former Sheriff Walls was found to have spent tens of thousands of dollars in the final months of his term, including more than $20,000 for 24,000 rolls of toilet paper and $9000 for 450 cases of trash bags — money that Sheriff Sims needed to replace bulletproof vests and purchase new Tasers.
Marshall County chief deputy Doug Gibbs told reporters the spending was a cynical ploy to undermine the new sheriff. "They bought a bunch of unnecessary items just to spend the money, to keep us from having it," he said.
A History of Abusing Power
Alabama sheriffs "answer to no one but the voters who elect them," AL.com found. Many oversee multimillion-dollar budgets, and they "wield far greater power than most other elected officials to spend public funds as they see fit, and they are subject to far less oversight."
For decades, Alabama sheriffs have relied on a Depression-era statute to pocket millions of taxpayer dollars designated for feeding people in county jails. As incarcerated people starved, reports of a sheriff buying a lavish beach house with jail food money generated public outrage.
State lawmakers finally took steps to address that unique Alabama practice this session by passing Senate Bill 228, which requires counties to establish a prisoner feeding fund to safeguard money intended for that purpose and raises the amount counties receive from the state for jail food from $1.75 to $2.25 a day per person.
The new law provides that 75 percent of any money left in the prisoner feeding fund at the end of the year must be carried over in the fund for the next year; the remainder can be spent for law enforcement purposes. The funds will be subject to audits by the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts.
The allegations reported by AL.com and ProPublica suggest a great deal more reform is needed.