A federal judge today said Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin violated a previous court ruling when she removed $160,000 from the jail's food account and invested $150,000 in a used car lot.
U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon did not rule today on whether he will hold Franklin in contempt of court or issue sanctions. The judge did, however, tell Franklin she has to obey a former judge's ruling in a 2009 consent decree that states the Morgan County sheriff must spend all food money on feeding inmates. The Southern Center for Human Rights, which represents Morgan County Jail inmates, argues that Franklin needs to show cause for why she shouldn't be held in contempt.
Following a hearing at the federal courthouse in Decatur, Franklin publicly gave a reason for loaning $150,000 of the food money to Priceville Partners, a now-bankrupt, corrupt used car lot. Franklin told reporters she invested the money in an attempt to earn back $21,000 that she claims she lost on feeding inmates. Franklin did not say when the account went $21,000 in the negative or when the account gained enough money for her to remove $160,000 and loan $150,000 to the car lot. Franklin did not provide documentation of the account. Read more about the car lot investment here.
Franklin also said she didn't know she was supposed to adhere to the consent decree's requirement that she spend all food money on inmate meals. Franklin said she was given legal advice several times that she didn't have to adhere to the order. Franklin didn't say who gave her that advice. Her attorney Barney Lovelace said the advice didn't come from the county's lawyer but wouldn't say from whom that advice did come. The Decatur 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.
Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin will argue at a 1:30 p.m. federal court hearing today that there is not a correlation between her keeping unspent inmate food account money and the complaints that have been made by inmates about the jail's meals, said one of her attorneys Barney Lovelace.
Lovelace argued in court that Franklin did not believe the order applied to her, but the judge didn't buy it. The order, Kallon said, explicitly states the Morgan County sheriff cannot spend food money on anything besides feeding inmates. Judge Kallon said Franklin has to adhere to the order.
"Does she have the right to ignore the court order based on the disbelief or that the court order is invalid or does not apply to her?" Kallon asked Lovelace. "If Sheriff Franklin believes that Judge Clemon exceeded his bounds, isn't the proper procedure for her to raise that argument before she violates the consent decree?"
Lovelace said before Franklin should not be held in contempt because it hasn't been shown that the order was unambiguous or that it was valid and lawful.
"Your honor if that is the requirement by the 11th Circuit, it's meaningless for them to say that before you can establish that somebody has violated an order that first off the district court has got to determine that the order was valid and lawful as to the party alleged to be in contempt," Lovelace said in a response to Kallon's questions.
The consent decree resulted from a 2001 lawsuit filed by inmates against the county and then-Sheriff Steve Crabbe. The lawsuit came to a halt when an agreement was reached for improvements including building a new jail. The case returned to court in 2009 when then-Sheriff Greg Bartlett was held in contempt for feeding inmates corndogs for weeks while he profited more than $200,000 of the food money. The amended decree was issued by now-retired Judge U.W. Clemon.
In Morgan County, the sheriff receives $1.75 per day from the state for each Alabama inmate housed in the jail. The county also receives about $3 per meal for each federal inmate. The jail, which recently underwent a 450-bed expansion, now has the capacity to house more than 900 inmates.
Does she have the right to ignore the court order based on the disbelief or that the court order is invalid or does not apply to her?
Kallon also said, "I think if I'm hearing correctly you're saying Judge Clemon exceeded his bounds. Isn't that an argument that should've been made to the court of appeals in 2009?
"No sir, not as it relates to Sheriff Franklin," Lovelace said.
"What I'm trying to figure out is does she have the right to say I don't believe that law applied to me or should she have gone first to the court and raised that point before she engaged in the conduct," Kallon said. "Or, should we be able to come in as reasonable citizens and say judge I didn't follow your order because as I read all of the events surrounding it, it didn't really apply to me or it exceeded the scope as it applies to me and because I believe that I'm being reasonable in my interpretation of the order I should not be required to follow it?"
Kallon has said he will issue a written ruling after reading more case law on the contempt issue. Kallon also will later consider Franklin's request to terminate the consent decree's requirement of spending all food money on inmate meals. A hearing is expected to be scheduled for late June or early July.
Franklin argues that inmates can get a constitutionally required, nutritionally adequate diet even if the sheriff is allowed to keep some of the food funds. Kallon told Lovelace he doesn't disagree.
Sheriff Ana Franklin, who loaned $150,000 from the food account to a now-bankrupt used car dealership, is scheduled for a hearing at the federal courthouse in Decatur on Friday at 1:30 p.m.
In other issues taken up during today's hearing, the judge granted Franklin's motion to strike a letter that was made public in court documents by the inmates' attorneys. The letter sent from the inmates' lawyers to Franklin and her attorneys includes complaints by detainees about the food served at the jail.
The complaints primarily allege the jail sometimes runs out of menu items before all inmates have been fed.
The Center's lawyers used 144 inmate complaints about meals that were served over a 25-month period when approximately 1,027,350 meals were served at the jail, Lovelace has told AL.com. Therefore, the 144 grievances only represent complaints about less than 1 percent of meals served during the 25-month period, the attorney told AL.com.
"I am sure that any retail, fast food or sit-down restaurant would be extremely pleased with such a low complaint percentage of the meals they served," Lovelace said.
Franklin also argues the consent decree doesn't apply to her because it was only an agreement between former Sheriff Bartlett and the judge for Bartlett to get out of jail. The Center argued the ruling does apply to Franklin because she would be substituted as a defendant when taking office after Bartlett.
Additionally, Franklin and her attorneys told the judge she had already replaced the $160,000 taken from the food account before the Southern Center for Human Rights filed the contempt motion.
"It was not a matter of being found with my hand in the cookie jar then go back and put the cookies in," Lovelace said. "That was done before hand."
Franklin also argues the inmates did not go without proper nutrition during the time the money was removed from the food account.
It's not clear when Kallon will rule on the contempt issue.