Cullman sheriff: jail food issue must be decided at the polls

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Sheriff Matt Gentry walks U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Alabama through the Cullman County Detention Center kitchen on March 27, 2018. (Tribune file photo)

CULLMAN – On Tuesday, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a memorandum to State Comptroller Kathleen Baxter which brings to an end the state’s policy of paying prisoner food allowances directly into the personal accounts of county sheriffs. The memo reads:

Through this memorandum, I am rescinding the State’s current policy of paying prisoner food service allowances directly to sheriffs in their personal capacities.  After recent events brought this policy to my attention, I asked my legal office to re-examine its validity and advisability under state law. That office has now advised me that a 2008 attorney general opinion on which the policy is based–an opinion from then-Attorney General Troy King to the Etowah County Commission and City of Gadsden–is no longer valid.

Therefore, effective immediately, I am directing that payments under section 14-6-43 of the Code of Alabama relating to the feeding of prisoners in county jails no longer be made to the sheriffs personally.  Instead, all such funds should be directed to the county general fund or to an account established for the sheriff’s official use, whichever is appropriate for the county at issue under local laws and ordinances consistent with state law.

On Wednesday morning, Baxter forwarded the memo to all county commissions and sheriff’s offices along with her own memo which read, in part, “Pursuant to Governor Ivey’s directive, my staff will send these funds ‘to the county general fund or to an account established for the sheriff’s official use, whichever is appropriate for the county at issue under local laws and ordinances consistent with state law.’”

Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), two organizations that filed a joint lawsuit in January against 49 Alabama county sheriffs (including Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry) seeking public records showing whether they had personally profited from funds allocated for feeding inmates, challenged a detail of the memo.  They pointed out that the policy change, in the words of the memo, only affected “the State’s current policy of paying prisoner food service allowances directly to sheriffs.”  Food service allowances are funds to cover the cost of preparing and serving meals to prisoners, but do not cover the cost of the food itself.

The groups then noted that official “food service allowances” account for only a small amount of the money given to sheriffs for the feeding of their prisoners, with the majority of funds being earmarked for food item purchases.  Through this loophole, according to the two organizations, sheriffs may continue to pocket large amounts of the food money they receive.

SCHR issued the following press release Wednesday afternoon:

In two memos sent yesterday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey 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. Contrary to media reports, these memos do not yet fully fix the problem of sheriffs personally pocketing these public funds.

The food service allowance funds make up a small fraction of the total amount that a sheriff receives. 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.

“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, barring further action, 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.”

Cullman’s Sheriff Gentry trying to get ahead of the issue

In February of this year, sponsor Rep. Corey Harbison, R-Good Hope and co-sponsors Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview and Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, with support from Gentry, introduced House Bill 461, proposing that citizens vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would remove all food money from the personal control of any Cullman County Sheriff.  Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman supported the bill when it moved to the Alabama Senate.

The proposed amendment covers all food funding from any source, reading:

Effective beginning the next term of office of the Sheriff of Cullman County after the ratification of this amendment, any allowances or other amounts received by the sheriff for feeding prisoners shall be deposited in a separate account in the county treasury to be known as the "Sheriff's Discretionary Fund" and shall be used by the sheriff for the feeding of prisoners in the county jail. Any funds in the Sheriff's Discretionary Fund over the amounts needed for feeding prisoners may be used by the sheriff for law enforcement purposes and for the operation of the office of the sheriff. Any funds in the Sheriff's Discretionary Fund shall be carried over from year to year. In the event additional amounts are needed by the sheriff for the feeding of prisoners, the amounts shall be paid by the sheriff from any other discretionary funds available for the operation of the office of the sheriff. The sheriff shall not be subject to the competitive bid law for the purchase of food or supplies used for feeding prisoners in the county jail.

The bill passed both houses in March and will be on the ballot during the general election in November, at which time voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to approve the amendment.

After the passage of the bill, Gentry issued the following statement:

I would first like to thank our local legislative delegation for passing the local food bill out of the Alabama Legislature that changes the food bill from a personal account of the sheriff to a discretionary account of the Cullman County Sheriff's Office to be used for training, to buy equipment, and other law enforcement purposes.

I would specifically like to thank Representative Corey Harbison for sponsoring the bill and Representatives Randall Shedd, Ed Henry and Senator Paul Bussman for voting for the local bill.

Once signed by Governor Ivey, and if the citizens of Cullman County approve this local bill in November 2018, it will establish transparency and (fiscal) responsibility over the jail food account that the old 1930's food bill and current law does not allow for.

Since I was a candidate, and having the honor of becoming Sheriff of Cullman County, I have been committed to fixing the food bill issue. I am grateful to be able to get a local bill passed and placed on the ballot for the citizens of Cullman County to vote on.

After the issuance of the governor’s memo this week, Gentry told The Tribune, “You know, for us, I saw the memo that went out.  But our biggest contingent is that, hopefully in November, we are already one step ahead, and we have it on the ballot. We worked with our legislators this last session to get it put on the ballot, to change the food bill–the way it’s ran in Cullman County–from a private account to a public account that will be audited by the state auditors.

“And what we’re trying to do now is to urge people in November to vote yes on the ballot to change it from a private account–which is by state law ran by the sheriff–to a public account which is then, by state law, ran by the sheriff- one that will be audited.”

To view the governor’s and comptroller’s memos, visit http://comptroller.alabama.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2018/07/2018-07-10-Sheriff-Allowances-Comptroller-Governor.pdf.

To view HB461 and the proposed constitutional amendment, visit https://legiscan.com/AL/text/HB461/2018.

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