What would Andy do? Legislators say audit-free prisoner meal-money system for state’s sheriffs is not acceptable, plan to revise law By Sheryl Marsh DAILY Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org · 340-2437 Alabama sheriffs should be like Andy and Barney, who would not pocket prisoner food money, said Rep. John Robinson. Robinson, the whip of the Democratic Party in the Alabama House, said he did not know that state Examiners of Public Accounts were not auditing prisoner food money. Robinson sits on a committee that oversees the examiners. "When you handle public money it is not intended to be used personally," said Robinson. "I was not aware of it, and I will do my part to do away with it. Andy or Barney from 'The Andy Griffith Show' wouldn't take the money. They would give it to the General Fund. All sheriffs ought to try to emulate Andy." State audit reports show that Examiners of Public Accounts do not require sheriffs to show how much money they spend for inmate meals nor the amount they take personally. The reports show the amount the state pays for the inmate food fund only. Robinson said the practice is not acceptable. "I think any public money should be accounted for," the Scottsboro representative said. "I did not know they were not auditing that money. That's our job to look at accountability and to be accountable." Examiners have no problem saying that the money the state pays sheriffs to feed inmates is the sheriffs' money and they don't have to show how it's spent. "Our audit position is that the money is to be retained by the sheriff," said Mike Scroggins, chief of county audits. He would not say when that became the examiners' position, who was responsible for the determination or how the flow-through money would be different from the money that was funneled through the defunct Alabama Center for Quality and Productivity. Scroggins said the Legislature should address those issues. Sheriffs in 62 of the state's 67 counties are in charge of feeding inmates and receive $1.75 per inmate per day. Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett kept $103,946 during a two-year period, in addition to his salary, according to his 2003-05 audit report. Limestone Sheriff Mike Blakely and Lawrence Sheriff Brian Hill also keep the food money, however, their audit reports do not show how much added food income they received. Scroggins said months ago that the amount of money the Morgan sheriff receives should not have been listed in the audit. Sheriffs in some counties forward leftover money to their county's General Fund. In five counties, the county commissions are in charge of feeding inmates. Robinson said he'll join other lawmakers, including Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, and Rep. Ron Grantland, D-Hartselle, who vowed to revise the 1939 law that allows sheriffs to keep money as part of their personal income. The law traces to an era in Alabama when public officials were paid by fees. Sen. Larry Means, D-Gadsden, another member of the committee that oversees examiners, said he'll join the effort for change, too. "I didn't know that it wasn't being audited," said Means. "I think the people expect the money to be audited. I don't think you ought to be able to pocket taxpayers' money. Nobody should be able to do that." Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who is chairwoman of the examiners legislative oversight committee by virtue of office, said the examiners are following the law. "It's not a matter of whether the auditors think it's wrong," Baxley said. "You can't fault the auditors if the law permits it." She said people who do not like the conversion of state money to private pockets with no accountability can tell legislators. Baxley expressed her personal opinion saying, "I firmly believe that anyone who holds public office should be paid an amount set by law and there shouldn't be any further payment. I think everybody who runs for a set salary should not be eligible for any other pay. Maybe the salary should be higher." Sometimes, sheriffs come up short on feeding inmates out of the $1.75 per day per inmate the state pays. Baxley said she's against that also. She said counties and the state should pay to feed inmates. Judge said money public A 1996 case in Randolph County involving a local act on feeding prisoners led a circuit judge to comment on the state law. The judge said that a compelling reason for the food money to be public is the state constitution "prohibits increasing fees or allowances of public offices." In his ruling, the judge said "the state has provided funds for feeding prisoners which were intended for the feeding of prisoners." He said good management should not create a substantial deficit or surplus. The judge said voters trust the sheriffs to perform all the duties of the office, including feeding prisoners. "The salary, prestige and other emoluments of office should be sufficient." The judge went on to say that legislation allowing personal gain would be an open invitation "to problems which no one wants and the Legislature did not intend to invite." The judge ruled the local law unconstitutional. "All monies in the sheriff's fund for feeding prisoners by whatever name or designation it may be called is declared to be public money, shall be held in trust as a part of the duties of the office of the sheriff, shall be continually accounted for and shall be only used in accordance with law," the ruling states. "It shall never be the personal funds of any sheriff. It shall remain under the control of the sheriff as otherwise provided by law."