Blogger Comments: If you believe the fluff in the counterclaims, how did the whistleblowers and Leon Bradley fool some many people? The truth is they didn't...
May 4, 2018 6:00 am
Like several other Alabama sheriffs, Morgan County’s Ana Franklin has been accused of taking advantage of an archaic state law to pocket taxpayer funds set aside to feed inmates.
But the allegations against the county’s top law enforcement officer go much further.
The venture in which Franklin invested the inmate food funds happened to be a used-car lot run by an ex-felon. Franklin has failed to account for the unaudited, tax-exempt money she raised running an annual local rodeo, which earned about $20,000 each year — funds she promised went to charities and law enforcement. Most troublingly, Franklin is accused of enlisting her office to help bring charges against two people who sought to expose her.
A Morgan County Circuit judge ruled last week that Franklin and one of her deputies engaged in “criminal actions” by misleading the court in seeking a warrant to raid the office of a local blogger who has meticulously tracked Franklin’s activities.
Franklin has denied wrongdoing, writing on Facebook on Sunday that her reputation is being unfairly “defamed and torn apart.”
Amid a reported investigation by the FBI, Franklin, who took office in 2011, has announced she won’t run for re-election.
But she has no plans to step down before the end of her term.
“So far as I know, there has been no request to resign and she’s not going to resign,” one of her lawyers, William Gray, told TPM.
Used inmate food funds to invest in sketchy used-car lot
In 2015, Franklin invested $150,000 in Priceville Partners, a used-car dealership owned by an ex-felon, Greg Steenson, who spent time in jail on conspiracy and bank fraud charges.
Though her daughter and father both worked on the premises, Franklin denied knowing about Steenson’s criminal history. The following year, the dealership filed for bankruptcy and Steenson was arrested on new charges of theft and forgery involving the dealership.
During the bankruptcy proceedings, Franklin admitted that the money she invested in the lot did not come from her savings and retirement accounts, as she had originally claimed. Instead, as local blogger Glenda Lockhart documented, it came from the account earmarked to feed inmates in the prison she oversaw.
Lockhart published cashier’s checks and deposit slips on her blog, the Morgan County Whistleblower, that showed that Franklin withdrew $160,000 from the food fund account in June 2015, and that Priceville Partners deposited some $150,000 a few days later.
Franklin violated court order as inmates claimed to go hungry
As it turned out, Franklin’s use of the food funds for personal ends was forbidden. While most sheriffs in Alabama are legally permitted to keep what they deem to be excess food funds, Morgan County’s sheriff, until recently, was not. In 2009, after Franklin’s predecessor pocketed $212,000 while exclusively feeding inmates corn dogs twice a day for three months, a judge imposed a federal consent decree requiring that all of the county’s inmate food funds actually be spent on food.
After the Priceville scandal broke, Franklin said she had received poor legal advice and was unaware she could not keep excess funds. She also claimed the food served in her prison was healthy and plentiful.
That claim conflicts with findings from the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) which battled Franklin in court over her violation of the consent decree last year. Court records filed by the Center describe inmates complaining of receiving inadequate, rotten, or contaminated meals.
“Detainees have complained of finding assorted matter in their food such as rocks and, in one case, a nail,” the SCHR exhibit reads. “Similarly, detainees report that meat is inedible because it is raw, beans are inedible because they have not been cooked, and bread is inedible because it is stale or moldy. Detainees have likewise complained on multiple occasions that the jail serves them food items that are frozen, sometimes with ice still attached.”
Franklin ultimately was required to pay back the $160,000 taken from the inmate food fund. She was also found in contempt of court and hit with an additional $1,000 fine.
Sheriff’s rodeo fundraising proceeds went unaccounted for
Like other Alabama sheriffs, Franklin helped oversee a local sheriff’s rodeo to raise money for charity and local law enforcement. Notably, as The New York Times reported, rodeo money is not audited by the state.
Franklin told the Times that she raised $20,000 a year for charities and law enforcement, but offered conflicting accounts on where the money ended up. After the newspaper told Franklin they could find no organization by the name she first gave them, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Rodeo, she said the funds actually went to the Morgan County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse.
That non-profit happens to fall under an I.R.S. loophole for charities affiliated with government agencies, meaning it isn’t required to make its finances public, as the Times reported.
Aggressive legal action against her detractors
Franklin is accused of improperly targeting several people who have spoken out against her, most notably Lockhart, the Morgan County Whistleblower blogger.
In October 2016, Franklin paid Lockhart’s 19-year-old grandson to install surveillance software on the computer at Lockhart’s construction company to try to determine who was leaking law enforcement information to the blog. Shortly after, Franklin’s deputies obtained a search warrant and raided Lockhart’s office, seizing her computers and electronic devices.
Franklin denied allegations of retaliation, telling local press that Lockhart crossed “the line of criminal activity” in her “hateful” efforts to “tear this office down.” Lockhart promptly filed a federal suit against Franklin for violating her right to free speech, invading her privacy, and slandering her, according to court records. Lockhart has not been charged with a crime.
Caught up in the fracas was former Morgan County jail warden Leon Bradley, who was fired and, in September 2017, arrested. Franklin’s office alleged that Bradley had passed along law enforcement information to Lockhart.
In testimony for Bradley’s case, Franklin’s deputies described surreptitiously recording their conversations with Bradley and installing a GPS tracker on his car. An investigator from another Alabama sheriff’s office testified that Franklin’s office “used us” by providing inaccurate information to secure Bradley’s arrest.
Bradley’s charge was dismissed last week by circuit judge Glenn Thompson, who granted the initial search warrants. In a blistering ruling, Thompson found that Franklin and one of her deputies “deliberately misled” the court to obtain the warrants and “endeavored to hide or cover up their deception to criminal actions under the color of law.”
In a statement, the Morgan County Sheriff’s office denied any “improprieties” in the investigation.
Franklin staying put as multiple agencies probe her use of funds
The FBI is currently probing Franklin’s use of taxpayer funds, according to the the New York Times. Representatives from both the FBI and Alabama Attorney General’s office were in court listening to testimony in Bradley’s case.
But Franklin remains defiant, writing in a lengthy Sunday Facebook post thanking supporters for their “prayers” that she did nothing “criminal or unethical” and believes “the truth will be disclosed.”
Bobby Timmons, the executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs’ Association, told TPM that he personally asked Franklin to resign about three weeks ago — a claim her attorney denies.
Although Timmons said he has seen “no indication” that Franklin violated federal law, he insisted that his association holds accountable any member who “tarnishes the badge.”
“We don’t cover for ‘em at all,” said Timmons. “They know if they violate the law — taking kickbacks, getting payola from bootleggers — if they need to go to the penitentiary they’re gonna go. No sheriff is above the law.”
Morgan sheriff still dealing with bankruptcy aftermath
· By Eric Fleischauer Metro Editor
· Apr 22, 2018
The March 2016 bankruptcy of Priceville Partners, a used car and title loan business, has plagued Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin from the beginning, and it continued to do so in testimony Friday.
The proceeding in Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson’s courtroom was to hear evidence on a motion by Leon Bradley to dismiss computer tampering charges filed against him for allegedly forwarding sensitive Sheriff’s Office documents to Glenda Lockhart, a blogger who has been critical of Franklin for years. Blog posts critical of Franklin and her top deputies ramped up as Priceville Partners’ collapse began in January 2016.
Franklin loaned $150,000 to the company in June 2015, a loan that became public when the bankruptcy petition was filed. While Franklin initially said the money had come from her retirement savings, she later acknowledged it was drawn from an inmate food account. Franklin last year was fined $1,000 for contempt because the use of the money violated a previous court order.
In Friday’s testimony, Sgt. Blake Robinson acknowledged that he, too, had invested in Priceville Partners, and that posts on Lockhart’s blog led him to informally investigate her.
Robinson testified he ran a car wash in Hartselle that cleaned vehicles for Priceville Partners. In January 2016, the blog posted a photo of him at the car wash “as though I was committing some sort of ethical violation.”
“It began hammering on Blake personally, and I guess I started paying more attention to (the blog),” Robinson testified. “It kept me on alert, like, ‘Who in the world is stopping by the car wash and taking pictures?’ (I had) that feeling of ‘Am I being followed? Why are they watching me?’ ”
Franklin on Friday also was clear about her concerns in 2016 about the blog.
“I’m sure I told a lot of people I wished the blog would shut down,” Franklin testified.
Robinson took a job at the Falkville Volunteer Fire Department in 2015. Glenda Lockhart’s grandson, Daniel Lockhart, also was a firefighter there. Robinson acknowledged Friday he had told others that he was working “under cover” at the department to obtain information from Daniel Lockhart, but Robinson denied that was the reason he took the job.
In July 2016 — at a time when near-daily posts about Franklin’s ties to Priceville Partners were appearing on the blog — Robinson recorded an interview with Daniel Lockhart on the extent of his access to his grandmother’s computer. That was the first significant step in an investigation that would eventually encompass both Bradley and the blogger.
The legal focus of the motion to dismiss was on the validity of two search warrants issued by Thompson in October 2016. One authorized the Sheriff’s Office to search Bradley’s home and computers, and the other authorized seizure of Lockhart’s computers. The affidavits securing the warrants relied heavily on information Daniel Lockhart, identified as a confidential informant, obtained at his grandmother’s office.
William Gray, a Birmingham lawyer who represents Franklin, Robinson and Lt. Robert “Bones” Wilson, said Saturday he did not attend the hearing, but based on media reports it appeared to go far afield from its narrow legal purpose.
“The issues should have been confined to those matters that were set by the judge to be heard before the judge,” Gray said of the testimony. “If I’m there to talk about a warrant on Mr. Bradley, I shouldn’t have to talk about issues on anything else.”Much of the testimony revolved around whether the Sheriff’s Office had Daniel Lockhart install a keylogger — software that records keystrokes and can be used covertly to obtain passwords — to hack into his grandmother’s email account.
Daniel Lockhart in November 2016 testified that Justin Powell, a 13-year employee of the Sheriff’s Office who worked in the information technology department, provided him with keylogging software that he used to obtain his grandmother’s email passwords. He said he also duplicated a key to his grandmother’s Falkville business, which he obtained by telling his grandmother his fiancée needed access to Wi-Fi, and used the duplicate to enter the building after hours.
“I took pictures of everything, everything that’s been sent in and sent out,” Daniel Lockhart said of the emails. “And what I mean hacked, I mean I keylogged it and had the information sent to me through a keylogger where she types her password into the computer.”
He said he provided the passwords to the Sheriff’s Office.
Powell on Friday generally confirmed Lockhart’s account that he provided the software, although he said it happened in a meeting at Falkville Volunteer Fire Department after the search warrants were issued.
“At that meeting, I gave Daniel Lockhart a keylogger he had requested,” Powell testified. “I showed him how to install it.”
Powell testified Franklin was unaware of the keylogger. Powell also indicated it was his understanding Daniel Lockhart never ended up using the keylogger because he found his grandmother’s passwords written down next to her computer.
Robinson and Wilson also denied knowing about the keylogger. Franklin, Robinson and Wilson testified they did not know what a keylogger was until the use of one became an issue in a November 2016 federal hearing.
“Blake Robinson was not privy to any keylogger conversation until after the search warrant was served,” Robinson said.
The disavowal of knowledge of the keylogger appeared inconsistent with testimony by law enforcement officers outside the Sheriff’s Office.
Etowah County Investigator Steve McGlathery, who was asked by Morgan County to pursue the investigation against Bradley, testified he spoke with Robinson when he began researching the case.
“The comment was made to me that (Justin Powell) had given the keylogger to (Daniel Lockhart),” McGlathery said.
McGlathery also was sharply critical of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office.
“I believed they lied to us, they used us,” McGlathery testified.
Madison County Sheriff’s Capt. Michael Salomonsky testified he met with Franklin and others in response to her request that he prepare an affidavit seeking the search warrant on Bradley. Franklin denied in her testimony that she had requested any other law enforcement agency to prepare a search warrant affidavit.
“They were in the process of compiling the evidence from the keystrokes and from the informant,” Salomonsky said. “… My understanding was there were some keystrokes or something on a computer that was gathering some information and that was going to be a basis for the search warrant.”
Even as Franklin faces accusations about her handling of the Bradley matter and her alleged efforts to shut down Glenda Lockhart’s blog, she is defending herself against a complaint in the Priceville Partners bankruptcy case. The bankruptcy trustee has alleged assets were fraudulently transferred from the business to Franklin.
Gray said he also represents Franklin in the Priceville Partners case, and that he recently obtained an extension on the deadline to respond to the complaint. He said he has instructed his client not to speak to the media.
“According to the reports that I read, my goodness, the agent from Etowah County said that they lied to him,” Gray said. “That is a matter that raises the issue of potential criminal action. I’m sure at some point we can respond. We’re not trying to suppress the warrant, nor are we trying to suppress the truth.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.
Whistleblower lawsuit, loan to bankrupt car dealer put Morgan sheriff in the spotlight
· By Keith Clines For The Hartselle Courier Journal
Dec 24, 2016
Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin has denied any wrongdoing in an investigation involving a Falkville businesswoman. JOHN GODBEY/DECATUR DAILY FILE
Cars dot the former Performance Auto Sales lot at 2903 Point Mallard Parkway S.E. The company, before going bankrupt, also had locations in Hartselle, Moulton, Hoover and Chelsea. [JERONIMO NISA/DECATUR DAILY FILE]
· Jeronimo Nisa/Decatur Daily
Adversity on several fronts kept Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin in the news for much of 2016 — ranging from a loan she made to a used car company that is now in bankruptcy to defending a federal lawsuit filed by an internet blogger who has been critical of Franklin.
Franklin’s $150,000 loan to Priceville Partners in 2015 came to light in March when the company filed for bankruptcy.
Franklin again grabbed the public’s attention in October when she fired Morgan County Jail Warden Leon Bradley. He was accused of sharing sensitive information about the Sheriff’s Office with Glenda Lockhart, a Falkville businesswoman who manages the Morgan County Whistleblower blog.
Within days of Bradley’s departure, Lockhart filed a federal lawsuit against Franklin and three deputies on the grounds that they were attempting to suppress her First Amendment rights and that they conducted an illegal search of her business.
Franklin’s office is conducting a criminal investigation of Bradley and Lockhart for possible computer tampering.
Franklin’s loan and the controversy involving Bradley and the Whistleblower blogger make her one of The Decatur Daily’s 2016 Newsmakers of the Year.
Franklin said this year has been more taxing than most, but added her first year in office was the most difficult.
“It’s constantly been challenging, but overall I’ve been encouraged with what we’ve accomplished this year,” she said Wednesday afternoon.
Franklin, who is in her second term as sheriff, said she doesn’t think the external issues that arose this year have been disruptive to the department’s operations, and that she still has the confidence of the public and the department staff.
“I would hope the public and most of the staff understand that these things are uncomfortable and that we have to get through them,” Franklin said.
She said her biggest concern has been the safety of her deputies in a year in which violence against law enforcement officers has flared up in some parts of the country.
Franklin said 2016 has been a good year for arrests and cases the office has made, a decrease in the crime rate, staying under budget, and changes made in the office.
“I feel the community is safer,” she said. “I hear that regularly wherever I go.”
Franklin, however, and Lockhart have had their differences this year.
Lockhart said this week she was not surprised at how events have unfolded regarding Franklin since Bradley’s firing.
“You never go into starting a political blog if you don’t have the thought that repercussions are a possibility,” she said. “I was prepared for most of it.
“I didn’t think they would be using a family member to attack me,” she added, referring to her grandson being used as a confidential informant by the Sheriff’s Office.
Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long said the county’s liability insurance carrier is providing defense attorneys for Franklin, but has no other involvement in Lockhart’s lawsuit.
“That’s strictly the sheriff’s matter,” Long said. “It’s something that’s going to have to run and take its course.”
Long said he will back Franklin — as he would any elected county official — until it’s proved she has done something wrong. Long said many people are asking him about the matter, but he doesn’t think it’s hurting the county.
“I hope it gets resolved,” he said. “I hate to see anybody get in a legal matter with the people we serve.”
Lockhart said a county sheriff is supposed to serve the public, not the other way around.
“I really respect the position of sheriff,” she said. “I just don’t really respect this sheriff.”
Franklin announced that a search of Bradley’s Southwest Decatur home Oct. 4 found evidence he had shared sheriff’s records and information about the office with Lockhart, whose blog has been critical of Franklin and certain deputies.
She accused Bradley of using county property to send emails containing privileged information to his personal email account, then forwarding them “to a third person unaffiliated with the office or law enforcement.”
Franklin gave Bradley, who was warden for 13 years, a written notice Oct. 4 that she intended to fire him. The notice was issued just hours after the search of his home.
Bradley was fired Oct. 13. Franklin’s termination notice cited several department policies she said he violated.
Deputies used what they found at Bradley’s Southwest Decatur home to obtain a search warrant Oct. 5 for Lockhart’s Straightline Drywall and Acoustical LLC, where they seized several of the company’s computers and related devices.
Bradley and Lockhart are under investigation for computer tampering, Franklin has said. No charges have been filed. The investigation could take weeks or months to complete, according to Franklin.
A federal judge has halted action in Lockhart’s lawsuit until the criminal investigation is further along or concluded.
Lockhart’s grandson, Daniel Lockhart, 20, said in a sworn statement last month that he acted as a paid informant for the Sheriff’s Office to gather information on Bradley. He said officials in the Sheriff’s Office gave him software to install on Lockhart’s computers to obtain her passwords. He said a deputy showed him how to install and use the software.
Daniel Lockhart said in the statement that he gained the passwords in late September and gave the passwords to the Sheriff’s Office.
Franklin has confirmed that Daniel Lockhart was a paid informant. But, she said, no one in her office told him to install the software, supplied the software to him or instructed him how to install the software on his grandmother’s computers. Franklin said Daniel Lockhart broke his agreement as a paid informant by telling his grandmother he was a paid informant and by committing a crime if he installed the software on her computers.
A paid informant is not allowed to break the law to gather information, Franklin said.
Daniel Lockhart also said he has been in contact with the FBI, but declined to reveal the nature of his contact. An FBI spokesman said the agency had no comment when asked about Daniel Lockhart’s relationship with the FBI.
Lockhart said no investigators from the Sheriff’s Office have interviewed her, nor, to the best of her knowledge, Bradley about the computer tampering investigation. She doesn’t think they have spoken to Daniel Lockhart.
Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson has said he will recuse his office from presenting evidence to a grand jury if Bradley or Lockhart is charged. Anderson said he knows Bradley personally, and that Lockhart is part of the same case.
Lockhart said the “stigma hanging over us” has hurt her business and been “traumatic” for her family. Lockhart said she is operating the Whistleblower blog as usual, except that she has “pulled back the blog pertaining to the lawsuit.”
Earlier this year, Franklin was among a long list of creditors listed by Priceville Partners LLC, which operated Performance Auto Sales on Point Mallard Parkway, when the company filed for bankruptcy.
Records show Franklin loaned the company $150,000 in June 2015. Franklin said the loan came from her retirement savings.
Franklin said she had known the company’s majority owner, Harold Jeffreys, a long time, and knew of his reputation as a good businessman. She said she did not know that Greg Steenson was a part-owner of the company.
Steenson was sentenced to four years and three months in federal prison in 2002 after pleading guilty to bank fraud charges.
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