Alabama sheriff due in federal court this week for contempt hearing about inmate meals
The removal of $160,000 from the Morgan County Jail inmate food fund has landed Sheriff Ana Franklin a contempt hearing in federal court this week.
Around the time she loaned money to a now-bankrupt, corrupt used car dealership, Franklin took $160,000 out of the jail's inmate food fund.
Franklin has openly admitted that in 2015 she loaned $150,000 to Priceville Partners, which operated several used car lots in cities across the state. The business eventually shuttered and Franklin was one of several people listed as creditors in a March 2016 bankruptcy filing. The business' co-owner was arrested on accusations of running a theft and scam operation. That co-owner is Greg Steenson, who went to federal prison for an unrelated check kiting scheme in the 90s. Franklin has said she did not know Steenson was a co-owner when she made a loan to the company the year before.
Franklin and the other creditors listed in the $3.2 million bankruptcy lawsuit are not charged with theft crimes associated with the business.
Prosecutors are alleging Steenson was selling stolen vehicles at Priceville Partners -- the dealership to which Franklin made the loan. The vehicles weren't owned by Steenson or the dealership, and clear titles weren't provided for the purchases, according to court records.
But, that criminal case isn't what's bringing Franklin to the federal courthouse in Decatur on Thursday at 9 a.m.
The issue stems from a 2001 federal lawsuit filed by Morgan County Jail inmates about conditions in the facility. The inmates sued the county and then-sheriff Steve Crabbe. A 2009 consent order in the lawsuit has banned sheriffs in Morgan County from using the food funds for any purpose other than providing meals to inmates. Sheriffs of other Alabama counties do not have to adhere to the ruling.
The state pays the county $1.75 per day for each Alabama inmate that's housed in the jail. The county also receives about $3 per meal for each federal inmate housed in Morgan County. The jail, which recently underwent a 450-bed expansion, now has the capacity to house more than 900 inmates.
The consent decree also gave the Southern Center for Human Rights the authority to inspect financial records of the inmate food money in Morgan County.
In a court filing last month, the Center said Franklin needs to show why she should not be held in contempt for violating the judge's order. The sheriff declined comment for this story, but she previously has said the ruling doesn't apply to her.
The Center, however, said in a motion that Franklin must comply with the consent decree because "public officials are automatically substituted as parties to any case in which their predecessors in office were sued in their official capacity," according to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Former Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was automatically substituted as a defendant when he took office after Crabbe. Bartlett, who was dubbed "Sheriff Corndog" in 2009, was jailed for pocketing more than $200,000 of the inmate food fund. He was found in contempt of court for making a profit while the inmates weren't properly fed. Inmates testified in federal court that they were fed corndogs twice a day for weeks.
Franklin has told The Decatur Daily the ruling doesn't apply to her and denied a request to release financial records, citing privacy and calling it her personal money.
However, as The Daily reported in 2011, Franklin was advised before taking office that she could not legally use the inmate food money for anything other than feeding the inmates. At the time, the county commission refused to pay Franklin's legal bills for seeking an attorney's opinion on the federal lawsuit and the funds.
The Southern Center for Human Rights in its court motion said Franklin removed $150,000 and $10,000 from the food account on June 5, 2015 by using two cashier's checks.
The motion claims Franklin's attorney in January said the sheriff used the money to invest in a business. The motion does not name the business.
By February, Franklin's attorney changed the story to say the sheriff removed the money due to a "concern about the account nearing the $250,000 FDIC insurance limit," according to court documents.
Franklin refused to show records about what happened with the $160,000, the center said in its motion. But, she provided a document that showed an account named "Ana Woodard Franklin, Food Account" had a $160,000 balance in February. The account is listed under a Hartselle home address.
Nearly two years after the money was taken from the food account, the withdrawal was first made public by the Morgan County Whistleblower, a blog that has been critical of the sheriff for years. The blog has been involved in its own unrelated lawsuit with Franklin.
Franklin was sued last year by blogger Glenda Lockhart, who runs the Whistleblower. The lawsuit claims Franklin and several deputies used false information to get a warrant to search Lockhart's business and home as part of an investigation into fired jail warden Leon Bradley.
The blog recently obtained and published the cashier's checks that show where Franklin withdrew the $160,000. It also published a deposit slip that showed the used car lot put more than $150,000 in its bank account a few days later. AL.com is not publishing the documents because they include sensitive information, such as account numbers.
Lockhart, who has published a great deal of information about the sheriff on the blog, claims Franklin illegally obtained a warrant to search her home and business.
In October 2016, Franklin fired ex-warden Bradley on accusations that he was leaking law enforcement documents to Lockhart, who published them on the blog. When sheriff's investigators examined Bradley's work email, they found he had been forwarding document to his personal email account, then passing them on to Lockhart, according to the search warrant used to seize computers, files and other items at Lockhart's Falkville business, Straightline Drywall and Acoustical, LLC.
Bradley hasn't been charged with a crime, although Franklin previously told AL.com he was being investigated.
Lockhart claims Franklin illegally gathered information for a search warrant by paying an informant to break-in, hack and steal data from her home and business offices.
The informant, Lockhart's grandson Daniel, said in a sworn statement that he was paid to install keylogger software on his grandmother's computer. The software, he said, was provided by the sheriff's office, according to a transcript from a November 2016 deposition.
Daniel Lockhart said he was approached in August 2016 by sheriff's deputy Sgt. Blake Robinson. Robinson, who worked with Daniel Lockhart at the Falkville Volunteer Fire Department, offered to pay him for gathering information about any sheriff's office employees who were providing information to the blog.
"His goal was to terminate employees feeding the whistleblower information," Lockhart said in the statement. At the time, Lockhart, a 2016 graduate of Falkville High School in Morgan County, was 20 years old.
Lockhart, who was working at his grandmother's business at the time, said he made a copy of a key he borrowed from her so he could get into the property after hours.
In the statement, Lockhart said he took pictures of emails between his grandmother and the ex-warden, as well as correspondence she had with Chris Hendon, an FBI agent. Lockhart said he hacked his grandmother's Gmail account and the blog.
The keylogger software captured his grandmother's passwords, which Daniel Lockhart wrote down and gave to the sheriff's office, he claimed in the statement.
In the statement, Lockhart said he met with Franklin, Robinson and deputy Robert "Bones" Wilson to claim his money. At that meeting, "Bones" handed the sheriff money and she gave $300 to Lockhart, according to the statement.
Lockhart claims he received a $200 payment about a week later from "Bones" in a Lowe's Home Improvement parking lot, according to the statement.
Lockhart said the FBI contacted him and he told the agent details about his dealings with the Sheriff's Office.
"(Franklin) freaked out," Lockhart said in the statement. "She wanted to know everything. Bones freaked out. Blake freaked out. Blake even made a remark if the FBI wants to go to war, they need to come up here on our front steps and we'll go to war."
The FBI called Lockhart while he was in a meeting at Franklin's office, the statement says.
"Bones kept asking me, when the FBI called, he wanted me to call them back, and he was doing that because he knew that I was working with them at that point," Lockhart said in the statement. "He wasn't stupid. Ana Franklin was stupid. She actually thought I was still on her side. But Bones knew that (the FBI) wasn't calling at 11 at night for no reason. They knew I was there."
Lockhart said he was persuaded to help the sheriff's office with the hacking because he was promised his grandmother wasn't a target of the investigation.
"Ana said that nothing would happen to my grandmother," Lockhart said in the statement. "I said 'Well you're going to only get Leon Bradly, right? You're not going to mess with my grandmother.' They said, 'Yes.'"
Glenda Lockhart told AL.com she believes Franklin and the deputies used the "illegally obtained" information gathered by her grandson to convince Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson to issue the search warrant.
'She could do this to anyone'
It's often been asked why Glenda Lockhart has used the blog to publish articles critical of Franklin.
The answer to that question also relates to another old lawsuit against the sheriff.
Glenda Lockhart and her husband Hal sued Franklin after they were arrested in 2011 on charges of obstructing government operations. The charges ultimately were dismissed, and the lawsuit was settled outside the public's eyes.
Lockhart told AL.com part of the lawsuit settlement requires she not discuss any details about financial compensations or other agreements.
The Lockharts said in a deposition that they were wrongfully arrested when the sheriff's office was called to assist with a mentally ill person on the family's property in Hartselle.
AL.com obtained a copy of a transcript from the deposition.
The sheriff's office was called to help when the Lockharts' son, who was mentally ill, gained possession of a gun. The call was made from the son's home on the family property in Falkville, but deputies responded to the Lockhart home, which is located at a different address on the property.
Glenda Lockhart said deputies spent hours at her home, searching the house, property and a garage--instead of assisting with the call at her son's home.
The couple was arrested because they asked deputies not to continue searching the home without a warrant, Lockhart said.
"If this could happen to us, she could do this to anyone," Lockhart told AL.com. "It was really devastating."
Lockhart said she decided to start the blog after the arrest. It was a way, she said, "to be a voice for the people who really feel like they've been done wrong by the sheriff's office."
AL.com will be covering the contempt of court hearing this week.