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Alabama Sheriff Legally Took $750,000 Meant To Feed Inmates, Bought Beach House
March 14, 20184:26 PM ET
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin took home as personal profit more than $750,000 that was budgeted to feed jail inmates, which is legal in Alabama, according to state law and local officials.
A sheriff in Alabama took home as personal profit more than $750,000 that was budgeted to feed jail inmates — and then purchased a $740,000 beach house, a reporter at The Birmingham Newsfound.
And it's perfectly legal in Alabama, according to state law and local officials.
Alabama has a Depression-era law that allows sheriffs to "keep and retain" unspent money from jail food-provision accounts. Sheriffs across the state take excess money as personal income — and, in the event of a shortfall, are personally liable for covering the gap.
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin told the News that he follows that practice of taking extra money from the fund, saying, "The law says it's a personal account and that's the way I've always done it."
Sheriffs across the state do the same thing and have for decades. But the scale of the practice is not clear: "It is presently unknown how much money sheriffs across the state have taken because most do not report it as income on state financial disclosure forms," the Southern Center for Human Rights wrote in January.
But in Etowah County, the News found the paper trail.
'Following the letter of the law'
The News discovered the eye-popping figures on ethics disclosures that Entrekin sent to the state: Over the course of three years, he received more than $750,000 in extra compensation from "Food Provisions." The exact amount over $750,000 is unclear, because Entrekin was not required to specify above a $250,000 a year threshold, the paper writes.
The paper also found that Entrekin and his wife own several properties worth a combined $1.7 million, including a $740,000 four-bedroom house in Orange Beach, Ala., purchased in September.
Without the provision funds, Entrekin earns a little more than $93,000 a year, the paper says.
In a statement emailed to NPR, Entrekin said the "liberal media has began attacking me for following the letter of the law."
FROM THE ARCHIVES
2009: Ala. Sheriff Jailed For Starving Inmates
"The Food Bill is a controversial issue that's used every election cycle to attack the Sheriff's Office," Entrekin said. "Alabama Law is clear regarding my personal financial responsibilities of feeding inmates. Until the legislature acts otherwise, the Sheriff must follow the current law."
Before he made headlines for profiting off the law, Entrekin was better known for being indebted by it.
When Entrekin's predecessor died while still in office, all the money in the food provision account went to his estate — as state law dictated, a county official told NPR. Entrekin had to borrow $150,000 to keep the inmates fed. He was paying down that debt for years, The Gadsden Times reported.
In 2009, while he was still in debt from paying for inmates' food, Entrekin told the Times that he personally thought the law needed to be changed. But he noted that it might cost more money for taxpayers if the county commission had to manage jail kitchens through an open bid process.
David Akins, the chief administrative officer of the Etowah County Commission, agrees with that assessment. He says the commission is not eager to take on that duty, as some other local governments have done.
"The sheriff can feed inmates cheaper than the county can," he said.
Inmate's diets, sheriff's responsibility
Alabama's controversial system hearkens back to a different era, when county jails were more of a mom and pop operation and feeding inmates was often the responsibility of a sheriff's wife.
Today in Alabama, sheriffs are personally responsible for feeding inmates in their jails and receive funds to cover the cost. For state inmates, it's less than $2 per inmate per day; for county, city or federal inmates, the amount can be higher.
If sheriffs feed inmates on lessthan that, they can "keep and retain" whatever is left over.
Lawyer Aaron Littman, at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said in a January statement that the practice of pocketing leftover funds was a "dubious interpretation" of the law that "raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail." He argues the sheriffs are supposed to manage the funds, not personally profit from them.
But local governments across the state say the law is clear that the money can be kept for personal use.
"That's the way it was set up years ago," Akins from the Etowah County Commission tells NPR. "That's just the way it's been in the state. ... Of course, state legislators could always change that if they wanted to."
He doesn't see a problem with the practice.
"I think if the inmates were not being fed properly, it might be a concern," he said. "But I'll guarantee you that if they're not fed properly, the federal government would let us know about it."
'Sheriff Corn Dog' and bankrupt car lots
In some cases, the federal government has objected.
In 2009, then-Sheriff Greg Bartlett of Morgan County was briefly tossed in jail after acknowledging that he had personally profited, to the tune of $212,000, from a surplus in the jail-food account. Prisoners testified about receiving meager meals.
To cut corners, Bartlett used charitable donations and "special deals," as CBS put it — including once splitting a $1,000 truck full of corn dogs with a sheriff of a nearby county and then feeding the inmates corn dogs twice a day for weeks.
He defended himself by noting that his profit was legal under state law, but an exasperated federal judge said the sheriff had an obligation to feed his inmates adequate food.
Newstime: Alabama sheriff legally took $750,000 meant to feed inmates, bought beach house
In 2015, a sheriff in Morgan County loaned $150,000 from the inmate food fund to a corrupt car lot. The loan was revealed when the business, facing theft and scam charges, went bankrupt.
Again, that sheriff's use of the food money was legal under state law; it was only prohibited in Morgan County because of the county's particular history.
Aside from individual lawsuits like those, it's hard to tell exactly how much money earmarked for inmate food is going to sheriffs.
This January, two advocacy groups sued for access to records that could reveal how much jail food money was being turned into personal profit. The groups said 49 sheriffs had refused to provide records of where funds were spent.
Then in February, reporter Connor Sheets of the News began revealing Entrekin's spending history and his ethics disclosures.
'I put two and two together'
Sheets' investigation has also made headlines because of the arrest of a key source.
Sheets spoke with a landscaper named Matt Qualls who mowed Entrekin's lawn in 2015 and noticed the name of the account on his checks — the "Sheriff Todd Entrekin Food Provision Account." He shared pictures with Sheets.
"A couple people I knew came through the jail, and they say they got meat maybe once a month, and every other day, it was just beans and vegetables," Qualls told Sheets. "I put two and two together and realized that that money could have gone toward some meat or something."
Sheets' initial story was published on Feb. 18. On Feb. 22, Qualls was arrested and charged with drug trafficking after an anonymous call complained of the smell of marijuana from an apartment.
Qualls, who had never been arrested before, faces six charges and is being held on a $55,000 bond, Sheets reports. He is detained in a jail that Entrekin oversees.
Qualls was arrested by Rainbow City Police, not by the sheriff's department.
The Etowah County Drug Enforcement Unit added extra charges to his case, including a charge of drug trafficking, which the Rainbow City Police chief said was based on inaccurate weight calculations. (The unit counted 14 grams of pot, infused in five cups of butter, as more than than 1,000 grams worth of marijuana.)
"Penalties for drug trafficking are extremely steep in Alabama, where people have been imprisoned for life for the crime," Sheets notes.
The sheriff's office denies involvement in Qualls' case, noting that the landscaper was not arrested or charged by the sheriff's office. The extra charges were added by the Drug Enforcement Unit, which consist of agents drawn from the sheriff's department, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
An Alabama sheriff, with an apparent tendency to violate the public trust, has announced she is not running for re-election. The public can thank a small-town blog for that, and it's another example of the Web press' power in the Heart of Dixie, whether the site is located in Birmingham or a north Alabama burg of fewer than 15,000 people.
Ana Franklin was elected sheriff of Morgan County in 2010 and soon developed a reputation for playing fast and loose with public funds and playing rough with critics of her office. One of those critics was Glenda Lockhart, and her persistent reporting on Franklin's dubious actions led to a recent announcement that Franklin would not stand for re-election when her term expires in 2019. From an al.com report on Franklin's decision to step down:
Ana Franklin, the only woman in Alabama currently serving as a county's top cop, is not running for re-election.
Franklin was first elected Morgan County Sheriff in 2010, taking office the following January. She plans to serve the remainder of her second term, which ends in January 2019.
"Today is a difficult day for me and comes only after endless hours of painful, deliberate thought and constant prayer over this decision," Franklin said in a video message posted to her Facebook page today. I have decided that I will not be seeking a third term as your sheriff.
"I am truly honored and blessed to have been given this opportunity to serve the people of my county," Franklin continued. "I love Morgan County and the people I work with. I love the office of sheriff and what that office means to the people."
Franklin's seven years in office haven't come without controversy. Most notably, Franklin was found in contempt of court last year because she loaned $150,000 of the jail's inmate feeding funds to a crooked used car lot. She's the subject of a federal investigation, as reported recently inThe New York Times. The sheriff and her office have been blasted by the local Morgan County Whistleblower blog.
How did Franklin draw Lockhart's attention and become the primary focus at one of the state's best-known investigative blogs? The New York Times explains:
Ms. Lockhart first took an interest in the sheriff after deputies came to her rural home in July 2011 to investigate a supposed disturbance. What happened next is in dispute, but she and her husband, Harold Lockhart, say the officers found nothing but refused to leave when asked. Deputies arrested the couple after Mr. Lockhart, a retired military police officer, said he had had enough and was calling his lawyer. The Lockharts successfully sued the sheriff for false arrest. And while the sheriff was not present for the arrest and later said she knew nothing about it, Ms. Lockhart did not forget.
Franklin's questionable handling of public funds soon surfaced, and Lockhart and her blog were there to make sure the public knew about it:
There was, however, more than enough evidence to link the sheriff to Priceville Partners L.L.C., a get-rich-quick scheme that spread a toxic cloud over the business community. A used-car dealership offering title loans, Priceville Partners had begun opening branches around the county, and investors were welcome. Ordinarily, law officers might investigate rather than invest in a business co-owned by the likes of Greg Steenson, who had done prison time for a multimillion-dollar check-kiting scheme. But several officers from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, along with Morgan County deputies, became financially involved, records show. One agent texted another asking if he wanted a one-month $7,000 profit on a $10,000 investment. Sheriff Franklin’s father worked there; her daughter did the bookkeeping. The sheriff invested $150,000. She would later say that she had not known Mr. Steenson was a co-owner, even though her daughter said that was clear from her first day on the job.
Sheriff Franklin eventually admitted the money had been withdrawn from an account earmarked for feeding inmates.
In 2016, Franklin chose to launch an under-handed attack on the Lockharts -- and it might have proven to be the sheriff's undoing:
In October last year , armed with a warrant, the sheriff’s drug task force seized Ms. Lockhart’s computers and electronic devices, court records show. In preparing for the raid, the sheriff hired an unusual spy — Ms. Lockhart’s 19-year-old grandson, Daniel Lockhart, who aspired to work in law enforcement.
Mr. Lockhart said the sheriff’s technology expert had instructed him on how to plant spyware. The raid took place about a week after he said he installed the software.
Mr. Lockhart had been living with his grandparents and working in their business. He gained access to the office after hours, he said, by telling Ms. Lockhart that his girlfriend needed an office computer for homework. Ms. Lockhart said she later discovered the spyware on her home computer as well and took it to the F.B.I., which has retained it.
Sheriff Franklin admits to hiring the grandson, but denies that she or anyone in her office asked him to install spyware. “We have absolute proof, ” Mr. Lovelace, the sheriff’s lawyer, wrote to The Times. He produced an analysis of Ms. Lockhart’s business computers by a firm he hired that, he said, found no spyware. Several parts of that report were omitted, he said, because of a continuing criminal investigation that he was not at liberty to describe.
The sheriff’s denial is undercut by four people who told The Timesseparately that they had knowledge that the sheriff’s office taught Mr. Lockhart how to install the spyware. Among them was Ricky Brewer, the sheriff’s former technology officer, who said he told the F.B.I. that his replacement acknowledged giving the grandson the software.
The sheriff's problems, even if she steps down as announced, might just be getting started. From The New York Times:
Here in Morgan County, Ms. Lockhart has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Sheriff Franklin of violating her right to free speech, invading her privacy and slandering her, charges the sheriff denies. Ms. Lockhart’s computers, containing vital company records, were returned only after a court hearing.
Glenda Lockhart's small-town blog keeps marching along. Meanwhile, Sheriff Franklin is headed out the door, with a federal lawsuit, an FBI investigation, and all sorts of unpleasantness on her tail.