Are Alabama Sheriffs Violating Federal Law? It’s Time to Investigate.

Today, in a letter sent to the United States Attorneys for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Alabama, the Southern Center for Human Rights, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the American Conservative Union, FreedomWorks, and the Adelante Alabama Workers Center urged an investigation into Alabama sheriffs with federal detention contracts who have personally pocketed substantial amounts of taxpayer money from jail food accounts. There is reason to believe that it is these sheriffs’ federal contracts that have allowed them to reap especially rich rewards from jail food accounts — and that much of the money they have taken comes from the federal government, in likely violation of federal law.

Across the state of Alabama, many sheriffs contend that an archaic state law allows them to keep funds allocated to feed people housed in their jails for their own personal profit, and some sheriffs  have relied on this interpretation to justify the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars into their personal bank accounts.(Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin infamously purchased a $750,000 beach house with these funds.) Sheriffs claim that the law authorizes them to retain “leftover” food money for themselves, abusing public trust and creating a perverse incentive to spend as little money as possible on feeding the prisoners in their care.

These sheriffs’ interpretation of Alabama law has been squarely rejected in an Attorney General opinion and by the current Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey. “Public funds should be used for public purposes,” Governor Ivey said in a statement in July, urging lawmakers to address the issue in the next legislative session.”It’s that simple.”

In addition to personally pocketing state tax dollars, because a number of these sheriffs also house federal detainees (who are either defendants in federal criminal cases or immigrants facing deportation), there is reason to believe that some sheriffs have pocketed federal tax dollars for personal use.

There is a stark difference in the per capita reimbursement rate for feeding a state prisoner versus a federal prisoner. In Monroe County, Alabama, for example, the per capita reimbursement rate for feeding state prisoners is $1.80 per day. For federal prisoners, it is over five times higher: $10 per day. In 2016, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office received a total of $26,710.80 in food funds from the State of Alabama, $5,505.00 in food funds from municipal contracts, and $108,620.00 in food funds from the federal detention contract. On December 30, 2016, the sheriff “declared excess and paid to” himself $44,402.77 – over $12,000 more than the total amount he had received from state and municipal sources, combined.

The misappropriation of funds by sheriffs with federal detention contracts may violate federal contracting law and criminal law. In particular, they likely constitute crimes under 18 U.S.C. § 666, which penalizes an agent of a state or local government or agency receiving more than $10,000 per year from a federal contract who “embezzles, steals, obtains by fraud, or otherwise without authority knowingly converts to the use of any person other than the rightful owner or intentionally misapplies” property of the state or local government or agency valued at $5,000 or more. These sheriffs’ actions also likely violate federal contracting law, such as the provision in the Intergovernmental Service Agreement with Etowah County which prohibits officials or employees of the recipient county from “participat[ing] personally” in performance of a contract in which he or she “has a financial interest,” and from “[u]sing his or her official position for private gain.”

“The law is clear, and Governor Ivey has been clear: jail food funds are public funds, and should be used only to feed incarcerated people,” said Aaron Littman, staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Because these sheriffs have refused to disclose to the public how much taxpayer money they have taken, further investigation is urgently required to determine whether they are violating federal law.”

When limited food funds are misappropriated by sheriffs, the Treasury isn’t the only victim: the health and safety of the people incarcerated in these jails is jeopardized. Recent media coverage of the food served at the Etowah County Detention Center included reports that inmates are frequently served meat packaged in wrapping that says “Not Fit For Human Consumption,” and donated chicken that is rotten and riddled with “tumors and abscesses and deformities.”

“It appears that some sheriffs have placed personal profit above their sworn duty to ensure the basic human needs of those in their care,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We are deeply concerned that those charged with enforcing our laws are instead breaking them. No one is above the law – this includes Alabama’s sheriffs.”

Sheriffs who pocket money paid by the federal government for feeding prisoners have abused the trust of the taxpayers — both in the state of Alabama and across America — out of whose paychecks these dollars came. Their actions also offend the conscience of all who believe that prisoners are to be safeguarded, not exploited for profit. An investigation into these sheriffs’ actions is urgently required.

Read the letter here.

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