Daniel Nichanian

A longstanding practice has enabled Alabama sheriffs to personally pocket money leftover from jail food funds. Some sheriffs have provided subpar meals and retained hundreds of thousands of dollars for themselves. Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin pocketed $750,000 of food funds over three years and bought a $740,000 beach house toward the end of that period, an AL.com investigation revealed in March.

On July 10, Governor Kay Ivey scaled back this practice. “Public funds should be used for public purposes,” she said, holding that excess funds should be transferred to government rather than personal accounts. But Ivey’s memorandum only applies to some of the food funds: Sheriffs can still keep money meant to purchase the food, though not money meant for food preparation and service. Ivey asked the legislature to pass legislation fully eliminating the practice, and state Senator Arthur Orr will introduce a bill to this effect in the next legislative session, which begins in 2019.

Excerpts from sample ballots in Cullman & Morgan counties (from Alabama Secretary of State)

Morgan County and Cullman County could go further in November. Voters will decide in two local referendums whether to bar their sheriffs from pocketing jail food funds. The measures were put on the county ballots by the state legislature. [Read more about Morgan County and Cullman County.]

This is significant in light of Morgan County’s recent history: In 2009, a federal judge cited “undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight” to rule that Sheriff Greg Bartlett, who had kept more than $200,000 of food funds, was insufficiently feeding people in jail. Bartlett’s successor Ana Franklin then fought in court to be allowed to keep unspent money.

In June, Morgan County’s GOP primary for sheriff saw the victory of a candidate—Hartselle Police Chief Ron Puckett—who pledged to not pocket any food funds. (Franklin had not sought reelection.) Keeping the leftover money “may be legally right, but it’s ethically and morally wrong,” Puckett said before the primary.

Etowah County saw a similar change in June. Entrekin, the sheriff who had kept $750,000, lost the GOP primary in a blowout to Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton, who committed to not keeping any food funds.

Attorney General Steve Marshall and many sheriffs have resisted attempts by nonprofits and by the press to obtain public records of how sheriffs have spent jail food funds, and what, if anything, they have pocketed. The Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center are now suing to obtain these records.

Published July 23, 2018 (updated)

update (Nov. 11): The “YES” won in both Cullman and Morgan counties in the Nov. 6 election.