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Thursday, May 3, 2018

Food Money and False Naratives

Folks, we all know the story on this:  beach houses, car lots, corn dogs etc.  We all know that 49 sheriffs refused to provide information on how they used food money.   And we all know it's completely legit.  Not so fast.  This article at shows how convoluted and confusing what the law says and what it means.  I've edited out the background because we are all too familiar with it.  We'll cut right to the chase:

How former AG Troy King allowed sheriffs to pocket jail food money

Why is it that all those sheriffs believe this money is theirs?
Most point back to a 2008 Attorney General's opinion -- an opinion issued by then-Attorney General Troy King.
One judge, three AGs, two opinions
By the time this question landed in King's lap, it had been litigated once already.
"A person elected as sheriff has imposed on him a great confidence and trust to perform all the duties of his office, including the feeding of prisoners," Hamner wrote. "The salary, prestige and other emoluments of office should be sufficient."
Hamner ran the alternative through to its ugly conclusion.
"Any other construction would be an open invitation to problems which no one wants and the legislature did not intend to invite," he wrote.
For jurisdictional reasons, Hamner's ruling applied only to Randolph Co., but in 2000, then-Attorney General Bill Pryor said "it provides persuasive authority" and that other counties would do well to abide by it.
Which brings us to 2008, when the new AG, King, took things in a different direction when asked to answer a similar question.
"The sheriff may retain any surplus from the food service allowance as personal income," King concluded.
With that, Alabama sheriffs had the permission they needed to pocket jail food funds, free and clear.
However, King didn't have the last word. In 2011, then-Attorney Gen. Luther Strange contradicted King's opinion.
In short, he said jail food money is for jail food. Not sheriffs' beach houses.
"Based on the facts presented, neither the sheriff nor the county may use the surplus for any purpose other than future expenses in feeding prisoners," Strange's opinion said.
Despite the 2011 opinion, many sheriffs continue still to put these funds in their pockets.
King's mandate
In all of the reporting and commentary on these jail food funds, a faulty narrative has formed around this issue: That sheriffs pocketing food money is legal in Alabama.  
It's not as simple as that. It's not that clear.
And it's not clear, in large part, because of King.
"The role of the Attorney General is to enforce the law as it is written," King said.
But it's not that simple, either.
Attorneys general must also give guidance on how to interpret the law -- to open the door for clarity and common sense.
Instead, when he was AG, King sowed confusion and opened a Pandora's box Alabama still hasn't managed to close.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group. 
And one day, if we live long enough, we'll see a majority in both houses of the legislature do the right and humane thing and end this travesty.

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