Money and Power: Corruption in Local Sheriff Departments
by Stephen Raher, December 20, 2017
A lengthy and thoroughly researched article in last week’s New York Times provides a detailed look at how corruption is tolerated and even encouraged in some county sheriff offices. The story focuses on Sheriff Ana Franklin, of Morgan County, Alabama; but, it also points to some larger issues that can easily be found in communities throughout the country. In particular, there are three issues in the article that deserve repeating: food, rodeos, and populism.
(And the hidden ways sheriffs make money)
Sheriff Franklin’s time in office has been marked by controversy for several reasons, but one transgression is a real attention grabber. The sheriff invested $150,000 in public funds in a car dealership owned by someone who had been convicted of financial fraud (the dealership subsequently filed for bankruptcy). This questionable use of public money was facilitated by a bizarre quirk of state law:
In most [Alabama] counties — Morgan included — food money is deposited not into government accounts, but into sheriffs’ personal accounts. Nearly a decade ago, when inmates’ lawyers demanded to know how much of this money Alabama sheriffs were keeping for personal use, the state sheriffs’ association instructed them not to answer.
This practice has led to an unfortunate temptation: some sheriffs try to spend as little as possible on jail food (a cruel practice that also raises public health concerns), so that they can keep any unspent funds for themselves. While this scheme may be legal in other counties, Sheriff Franklin ran into trouble because she was subject to an unusual level of oversight: the Southern Center for Human Rights had sued Franklin’s predecessor for inadequate food at the jail, and the litigation ended in a consent decree that requires the food budget to be spent entirely on food.
The Times article also explores out how this specific incident fits into a bigger trend that impacts jails all over the country, even in jurisdictions without Alabama’s lax budgetary practices. The more jails seek to generate revenue from incarcerated people, the more opportunities for unfairness will arise:
Sheriffs have found other ways to squeeze money out of inmates. Some take a percentage of service contracts, including commissary sales and telephone charges. In Morgan County, a company that just won the jail phone contract pays the county a 90 percent commission on all its revenue from prisoners’ calls. In St. Johns County, Fla., the sheriff brings in tens of thousands of dollars a year by charging inmates “processing fees.”
Prison Policy Initiative has been tracking monetization schemes like phone systems and commissary for a while. But this article makes an important point: as more incarcerated people are held in county jails, the potential profits for unscrupulous parties increases.
(and sheriffs’ questionable “charitable” fundraising)
The Times article also reveals some surprising details about law-enforcement related fundraising. Sheriff Franklin has expanded the size (and revenue) of Morgan County’s sheriff’s rodeo, amid allegations that deputies sold program advertisements while on duty, and were asked to work at the event without pay. Even more dismaying, it’s not clear whether the stated goal of the rodeo is even being met:
Sheriff Franklin said the rodeo brought in about $20,000 a year in profit, but she has never publicly accounted for all the money, except to say that it went to local charities and law enforcement. She promised to produce financial records for her rodeo, but a month later gave only names of charities and no amounts. The rodeo’s financial records, she said, were “reviewed by a C.P.A. firm.”
In interviews, the sheriff gave differing accounts about who processed the rodeo cash. First she said the money went through a tax-exempt organization set up a couple of years ago called Morgan County Sheriff’s Rodeo. Before that, the money was kept in a regular account, she said.
After The Times could find no group by that name registered with the Internal Revenue Service, Sheriff Franklin corrected herself, saying rodeo proceeds had actually gone to a different nonprofit: Morgan County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, founded in 1963.
Normally, tax-exempt organizations must file annual financial reports for public inspection. But Sheriff Franklin’s is exempt from public disclosure because of an I.R.S. loophole for charities affiliated with government agencies. “The I.R.S. assumes organizations controlled by governmental entities will be good tax citizens,” said Marc Owens, former director of the I.R.S. division of exempt organizations.
(And law enforcement’s anti-government rhetoric )
Not only are the accounting irregularities concerning, but the very nature of the fundraising activities highlights sheriffs’ highly political role and the ability to monetize the image that comes with the office. The article notes that some sheriffs have adopted a particularly anti-government platform which has gained popularity in recent years:
“In certain jurisdictions there is a feeling by sheriffs that this is my fiefdom — I am in charge, my way or the highway,” said Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, which has filed lawsuits against a number of sheriffs. “Sometimes that kind of culture can lead to sort of a sheriffs-gone-wild kind of behavior.”
“Mostly we protect people from criminals, but sometimes we protect them from an overreaching government,” said Brad Rogers, the sheriff of Elkhart County, Ind. He added: “I’m answerable to the people. I have a face and a name. Try asking the federal government for a face and a name.”
This rhetoric can be found across the country, from Sheriff Rogers in Indiana, to former sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, to Sheriff Glenn Palmer in Oregon (who publicly supported the protestors that seized the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016). These populist law enforcers share a common tactic: they build and justify their own unaccountable power by attacking the legitimacy of other politicians or government entities. Because of the vast powers given to county sheriffs, it is critical that reformers closely monitor their local sheriffs and challenge policies that are grounded in emotional appeals to voter fear.
The Times has done a good job of illustrating some common problems that arise from sheriffs’ unchecked power. The question facing the rest of us is what can be done to reverse this trend. Sheriffs can be challenged at the next election, but unseating an incumbent sheriff is quite unusual. As the article briefly notes, litigation and the rare criminal prosecution can be useful tools. And other elected officials may not have the ability to hire or fire a sheriff, but can often use the power of the purse to force operational changes. As usual, there is no uniform simple solution to this intractable problem, but any meaningful change must begin with an informed an active general public.