With a wrongful termination suit filed against her last week and a subpoena requiring her testimony this Friday, Sheriff Ana Franklin’s legal woes keep expanding.
“Getting sued is apparently part of what we have come to expect in this line of work and in this country,” Franklin said. “We have courts and a process. I have attempted and will continue to attempt to go through that process in the correct manner. In the line of work I do, there is a percentage of folks that we don’t make happy.”
The embattled second-term sheriff is not seeking re-election, but she will be defending herself from allegations in several cases during her remaining months in office.
Many of Franklin’s legal problems involve allegations that she has attempted to silence a blog that has been critical of her for years. The suit filed last week by a former deputy adds to that list.
William “Rick” Sherman, a Morgan County deputy sheriff from 2008 through April 2016, alleges in his federal complaint that he was forced from his job because Franklin mistakenly thought he was a “whistleblower who had been providing information of public concern involving the corruption of Franklin and others” in the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department.
“What this boils down to is Sheriff Franklin thought he was communicating with the whistleblower blog,” said Sherman’s lawyer, Nick Heatherly. “It was just her effort to silence that communication, regardless of whether her assumptions were true.”
Franklin this week said she had not seen the lawsuit, but added that she had not fired Sherman.
“I didn’t terminate him,” the sheriff said in a text, declining to provide additional details because of the pending litigation. “He resigned and did a lateral transfer to (Morgan) County District 2.”
Sherman claims he complained to Franklin and Capt. Ron Livingston in 2015 that he was not getting paid for all the hours he worked at the Morgan County Fair, while an unnamed employee was getting paid for hours not worked. Livingston, according to the complaint, responded by advising Franklin that Sherman had been leaking departmental information to a blogger.
“Initially after hearing that Sherman was the whistleblower, Franklin asked other MCSO employees to ‘find out what we have or can come up with on Sherman,’ ” according to the complaint.
Ultimately Franklin threatened to stop defending Sherman in an unrelated lawsuit filed against him in his capacity as a deputy, according to the complaint, if he did not resign. Sherman alleges he believed her threat “after personally observing Franklin’s vindictive nature … (and) was forced to resign from his employment.”
Sherman also claims Franklin successfully blackballed him from getting another job in law enforcement.
The same blog also is central to Franklin’s firing of former Warden Leon Bradley in October 2016. Multiple misdemeanor charges of computer tampering eventually were filed against Bradley, some revolving around his alleged forwarding of materials to Glenda Lockhart, who runs the blog critical of the sheriff. The charges are being prosecuted by the state Attorney General’s Office because Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson recused himself, as did several judges.
Heatherly also represents Bradley. Last month, on the same day Heatherly requested a hearing in which testimony could be taken from Franklin and her deputies, the state Attorney General's Office asked Judge Glenn Thompson to allow it to drop the claims. Bradley objected, arguing the attorney general's dismissal would not prevent the state from refiling charges later. He wants the charges dismissed permanently.
An evidentiary hearing on the issue is scheduled for Friday. Heatherly has served subpoenas requiring the testimony at the hearing of Franklin and deputies Robert “Bones” Wilson, Blake Robinson and Justin Powell.
Franklin declined to answer specific questions on the case against Bradley.
“I am looking forward to the opportunity to have people placed under oath and these proceedings to move forward,” she said.
All four of the subpoenaed witnesses were named by Lockhart’s grandson, Daniel Lockhart. In out-of-court testimony, he in November 2016 claimed Franklin paid him to enter his grandmother’s business and obtain documents related to her blog. He also alleged Powell provided him with keylogging software that he used to obtain his grandmother’s email passwords and to hack into her gmail account.
Robinson used information provided by Daniel Lockhart, identified as a confidential informant, in an affidavit requesting a search warrant of Bradley’s residence and Glenda Lockhart’s Falkville business. Thompson granted the search warrants in October 2016.
The actions of Daniel Lockhart and the seizure of Glenda Lockhart’s business computers are central to another lawsuit against Franklin and several of her deputies. The blogger's complaint alleges Franklin and some of her deputies illegally installed and used the keylogger software on Lockhart’s computers without a warrant, obtained a search warrant under false pretenses, damaged property they seized and slandered her. Like Sherman, Glenda Lockhart claims Franklin violated her First Amendment rights by retaliating against the whistleblower blog and her Fourth Amendment rights by obtaining a search warrant under false pretenses.
Federal District Judge Madeline Haikala on Monday heard arguments on motions by Franklin, Wilson and Robinson to dismiss the complaint, and on Glenda Lockhart’s request to add Powell as a defendant. She ruled in Lockhart's favor Tuesday.
Powell needed to be named as an additional defendant, according to Lockhart’s motion, because Franklin claims “she did not cause or contribute to the installation of this keystroke software.”
"We felt they're trying to find a scapegoat and an empty chair to blame," said Lockahart's attorney, Brandi Lee. "We believe Justin Powell actually installed the keylogging software, so we wanted to make sure he was a defendant."
Heatherly said the Sherman, Bradley and Lockhart cases all stem from the same issue: “It all ties into the sheriff’s agenda to silence anyone talking to the whistleblower and eventually trying to shut it down, regardless of what the costs were of doing that.”
Franklin also was sued in bankruptcy court last month by the trustee of Priceville Partners, a defunct title loan and used car business. Franklin, according to the trustee, benefited from fraudulent transfers from the company before it declared bankruptcy. She owes the company $24,500, the trustee claims.
The Priceville Partners bankruptcy also was the trigger for litigation that ended last year. Franklin had loaned $150,000 in jail-food money to the company and been promised a high return. The company declared bankruptcy before she could collect. She ultimately was charged with contempt of court and fined $1,000 for violating a 2009 court order that prohibited the Morgan County sheriff from using jail-food money for purposes other than feeding inmates. The court later terminated the 2009 order, so Franklin — like most other sheriffs in the state — can personally keep any excess jail-food money.
Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long on Wednesday said the county is not assisting Franklin with her legal fees.