A local constitutional amendment could once again bar Morgan County’s sheriff from keeping leftover food money as personal income while granting a pay increase to compensate the sheriff for the lost income.
If successful, it could bring to an end years of controversy over the feeding of inmates at the Morgan County Jail, officials said.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and County Commission Chairman Ray Long said they were in talks to propose the local amendment during the upcoming legislative session, which starts Tuesday.
Noting 11 other counties have similar measures, Sheriff Ana Franklin said she would support the proposal.
Details were still being worked out, but Orr proposed increasing the sheriff’s pay to within $5,000 of the commission chairman’s $101,276 annual salary. That’s up $25,096 from the sheriff’s current $71,180 salary.
The measure would simultaneously bar all future Morgan County sheriffs from keeping leftover food money as personal income.
As a local constitutional amendment, the proposal would require support from the local legislative delegation as well as favorable votes from the state House and Senate. It also would require a favorable vote from Morgan County voters via a countywide referendum.
Long said he hopes to put the issue to county voters as early as June so candidates seeking the sheriff’s office in the November 2018 election will know in advance the position's salary.
By removing the temptation for Morgan sheriffs to pocket the money for personal gain, Long said, he hopes to end the controversy over inmate nutrition that has persisted for years.
“It’s real tempting sometimes for somebody to run saying they’re not going to take the money and then wind up taking it,” he said.
Long said he believes the inmates are being adequately fed today, but there will always be doubt as long as the sheriff can legally keep the money.
“It always has that lingering doubt when we know the sheriff can keep that money,” he said. “I think this is a good way out for the whole county, and at the end of the day, it will be in the voters' hands.”
A 1939 state law allows most Alabama sheriffs to personally keep leftover food money as a supplement to their salaries, but the practice has been particularly problematic at the Morgan County Jail.
In 2009, federal District Judge U.W. Clemon ordered that all food money provided the county by the state be used exclusively for feeding inmates and held former Sheriff Greg Bartlett in contempt of court for failing to provide inmates adequate nutrition.
Bartlett testified he legally pocketed $212,000 from the inmate food account over a three-year period through cost-saving moves such as using donated food or reduced-cost food to feed inmates. In one incident, he testified he split a $1,000 truck load of corndogs with Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely.
Inmates at the Morgan County Jail testified they were underfed and that Bartlett had fed them corndogs twice a day for weeks, earning him the moniker “Sheriff Corndog.”
Last year, federal District Judge Abdul Kallon lifted Clemon’s order barring the sheriff from keeping leftover food money but found Franklin in contempt and fined her $1,000 for removing $160,000 from the food account before the order was lifted.
Franklin said she thought Clemon’s order applied only to Bartlett and that she had invested $150,000 of the money in Priceville Partners LLC, a used car dealership that went bankrupt. She said the investment was intended as a short-term loan from which she hoped to make $21,000 to pay back into the jail food account. But the business folded.
Franklin said Steven Wrea Ziaja, her former boyfriend and a fellow investor in the company, bought out her stake in the business, repaying her the money and taking over her claim in the bankruptcy.
Ziaja, an Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Law Enforcement Support Division agent, was indicted in an unrelated matter in November on 11 federal counts of computer tampering and one count of using his position as a law enforcement officer for personal gain.
The indictments say Ziaja knowingly obtained confidential information on several people from the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, which exchanges information with the National Crime Information Center. Court records do not say why Ziaja accessed the information or how he used it.
Ziaja was a member of Franklin’s principal campaign committee in 2013 and was active in her initial 2010 campaign for sheriff.
While Orr and Long emphasized the proposal is still in a planning and discussion phase, Orr said there is time to get the proposed constitutional amendment ready in time for consideration during the upcoming session.
Long said he expected the County Commission will vote to ask the local legislative delegation to sponsor the legislation during the session.