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.
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.
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.
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.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group.
Want access to the best analysis and in-depth reporting about Alabama each week? Sign up for the weekly Reckon Report newsletter and follow Reckon on Facebook and Twitter.As reports from center-leftAlabama Appleseed, libertarian-leaningInstitute for Justice, and very conservativeHeritage Foundationhave detailed, too often those assets are taken from people who have done absolutely nothing wrong. In many cases those people are never able to regain what they lost.
It's essentially guilty until proven innocent, the polar opposite of what our justice system is supposedly based on.
At the beginning of the session Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Representative Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) filed bills that would have made Alabama best protector of due process under Civil Asset Forfeiture in the country, but severe backlash from the law enforcement community stalled the bill.
President of the Alabama District Attorneys Association Brian McVeigh and president of the Alabama Sheriffs Association Dave Sutton argued the bill would "gut" the "crime-fighting tool."
Their op-ed drew nationwide attention, particularly for the admission that the ability to take cash and other liquid assets from suspected criminals is the driving factor in why some Alabama law enforcement departments more avidly pursue particular sorts of criminals over others.
"What incentive would local police and sheriffs have to invest manpower, resources and time in these operations if they don't receive proceeds to cover their costs?" Wrote McVeigh and Sutton.After weeks of talks, it appears many of the various groups have come to a compromise on a path forward over the controversial practice.
Under the new compromise, law enforcement officials would be required to detail how and when the assets were seized, the accused crime that had taken place to cause the seizure, how the funds or assets were used by the department, and whether or not there was ultimately a conviction in the case, among other data points.
The database, which will be maintained by ALEA starting in 2019, will not be publicly accessible until 2020.
Alabama will be the 38th state to require such reporting.
In a press release the District Attorneys Association Chief Deputy Director Barry Matson said, "The citizens of Alabama give immense authority and power to law enforcement, district attorneys and the judiciary. In granting this power, the public has a right to demand fairness, professionalism and transparency. And they deserve nothing less."
Former Congressman Artur Davis, who is representing the Institute for Justice on this matter in Alabama, said the bill is a good first step toward accountability and transparency.
"It ought to be hard rather than easy for the state to take your property away," Davis told me. "That's the underlying conviction of all of us who support forfeiture reform and we think it will be easier to make that argument if there is a state compiled record.""We will also know agency by agency and statewide what patterns of forfeiture activity look like in this state. This is a significant victory because if this legislation is not passed Alabama will remain in the category of being one of the least transparent states in the country when it comes to forfeiture."
While the compromise does get the endorsement of both the law enforcement community and the conservative and center-right organizations like API and IJ, center-left groups like Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center have pulled their support, saying the bill doesn't go far enough.
I agree--it doesn't go far enough.
But the first step toward accountability is transparency.
Next year the Legislature will come back without the pressures of an election year and a shortened session to contend with, and maybe even some freshmen legislators who will embrace the public's support of reform.
The compromise bill was introduced to the House Thursday, but Sen. Orr said Monday there were a few clarifications that need to be made before it will make its appearance in the Senate.