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Ivey orders sheriffs not to pocket excess prisoner food money

Brandon Moseley

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(ADAM BRASHER/THE AUBURN PLAINSMAN)

Tuesday, in two memos, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) announced that sheriffs may no longer personally profit from a very small portion of jail food funds: those state funds allocated for services in preparing and serving food to people in their jails.

In a statement, Governor Ivey said: “Public funds should be used for public purposes – it’s that simple.”

“It was a genius move by Gov. Ivey and her staff to use the payment procedures of the state comptroller to stop these funds from going personally to the sheriffs,” State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) said. “I had always assumed that it would take legislation to halt this practice, and that bill would be difficult to pass because of the strong lobby of the sheriffs. I was wrong about that — executive action can solve this problem without legislation.”

“I expect a legal challenge to this change,” Zeigler added. “Since the state comptroller has wide administrative latitude in determining how to pay bills, I expect any legal challenge to fail.”

Alabama Appleseed disagreed in a statement and argued that: Contrary to media reports, these memos do not yet fully fix the problem of sheriffs personally pocketing these public funds.

“While we applaud the Governor for taking a step towards accountability, her directive will have little practical impact on the problem it seeks to address,” Alabama Appleseed wrote. “The reason is technical, but important. The Governor’s memos only prohibit sheriffs from personally profiting from what is referred to in § Ala. Code 14-6-43 as “food service allowance funds”. The memos do nothing to stop sheriffs from pocketing the far larger amounts of state monies that are provided, per §Ala. Code 14-6-42, for the cost of food itself.”

“The food service allowance funds make up a small fraction of the total amount that a sheriff receives.” Alabama Appleseed explained in a statement. “In 2017, across the state, sheriffs received $204,605.10 in food service allowance funds, and the far larger sum of $4,991,500.50 for food costs. This means that the food service allowance, which the Governor’s memo addresses, constituted less than 4% of the total amount of state jail food money given to sheriffs last year. In some counties, the difference was starker: in Baldwin County, Sheriff Huey Mack received a food service allowance of $4,106.25, and $293,980.75 to purchase food.”

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“We agree with Governor Ivey that the law does not permit the conversion of public funds – funds which are designated by statute for the feeding of prisoners – into personal income for sheriffs,” said Aaron Littman, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Unfortunately, unless this directive is revised, sheriffs will continue to pocket large amounts of taxpayer money from jail food accounts.”

“For decades some Alabama sheriffs have abused the public trust by placing personal profit over meeting the basic human needs of people in their care,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “We thank Governor Ivey for taking the first step to rein in this abuse and urge Alabama legislators to heed her call to end this for good.”

This became a campaign issue in the Etowah County Sheriff’s race when the Alabama Media Group’s Connor Sheets reported that the incumbent Sheriff Todd Entrekin had pocketed over $900,000 of excess prisoners’ food money and used it to buy a beach house. There was never any evidence produced that the prisoners were the least bit malnourished. Many of them were criminal illegal aliens being housed there by the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). The issue however became a media story and Entrekin lost re-election.

“This change can save money for taxpayers and provide better food for the inmates,” Zeigler concluded. It can also right a wrong and solve an Alabama problem of image and substance.”

The state legislature is expected to consider legislation on this subject when it reconvenes in March.

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