Many Sheriffs Tempted by Lack of Oversight or Fiscal Accountability
by Matt Clarke
It is a perfect storm of temptation. Many sheriffs in America have little oversight, independent sources of revenue with little fiscal accountability, low salaries, and a lot of power. This leads some of them to pocket funds intended for other purposes.
Some Alabama sheriffs have become examples of what not to do with the food fund for jail prisoners. The state pays the sheriffs a paltry $1.75 per prisoner per day for food. However, there was a tradition among those poorly paid public servants of skimping on food and pocketing the savings.
In 2001, a judge ruled that the jail food in Morgan County, Alabama, was “inadequate in amount and unsanitary in presentation” when ordering the sheriff to serve nutritionally adequate meals.
A few years later, a different sheriff in the same county served two meals a day of corn dogs bought by the truckload at a discount, pocketing $212,000 from the food fund over three years. That led the judge to order that all food fund money be spent on food. The very next sheriff, Ana Franklin, took $160,000 from the food fund. Franklin eventually had to reimburse the misappropriated funds and pay a $1,000 fine, but suffered no further consequences.
That’s an example of how sheriffs control a lot of revenue streams with little or no oversight, tempting them to dip into the stream, even if it is under court scrutiny.
Discretionary revenue streams that sheriffs control typically include money from the garnishment of prisoners’ wages, seized assets allegedly used in the commission of a crime, and various fees, such as those for handgun permits. Franklin oversees 16 accounts for various revenue streams.
“Right now, we really don’t know what comes into those 16 other accounts,” said Ray Long, Morgan County Commission chairman. “We don’t have any recourse. When they get into trouble, there’s nothing we can do.”
“In many states, if the sheriff does something wrong, it’s not clear who’s supposed to do something about it, which means no one is going to do anything about it,” said Tulane University political scientist Mirya Holman, who studies sheriffs. “A combination of large budgets and little information provides an environment where corruption is certainly possible, if not probable.”
The misconduct can be more than fiscal — it can be fatal. Sheriff Oddie Shoupe of White County, Tennessee, has been sued about 50 times during his dozen years in office. Some suits involved wrongful deaths. In one notable case, a bodycam recorded Shoupe ordering deputies, who were preparing to ram the vehicle of a fleeing suspect, to shoot the suspect instead because he didn’t want them “tearing up” the soon-to-be-confiscated vehicle. The suspect was killed.
In theory, sheriffs are accountable to voters, who have the power to remove them from office when their misdeeds surface. However, anyone attempting to blow the whistle on a sheriff will likely face a concerted campaign of threats, intimidation, and harassment. That’s what happened to former deputy Virgil Gammon, who was fired by Sheriff Robert Arnold of Rutherford County, Tennessee, after Gammon, who was third in command at the office, exposed Arnold’s business of selling electronic cigarettes to jail prisoners. Ultimately, Gammon won a settlement for wrongful dismissal, and Arnold was sentenced to four years in federal prison for fraud and extortion. Unfortunately, that outcome is the exception, not the rule. Usually, a deputy who investigates the boss is soon out of a job with no recourse.
Once elected, sheriffs tend to be reelected for decades. Perhaps that explains why, according to one survey, 95 percent of sheriffs are white, and 99 percent are male. About 10 percent believe that their authority exceeds the federal government.
The “constitutional sheriff” movement discourages the enforcement of laws they dislike, such as gun control measures. This can very easily lead some sheriffs to believe that they are the law.