Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin, through her lawyer, last week joined 49 other Alabama sheriffs in taking the position that she has a right to hide information on the disposition of taxpayer funds from the public. The argument is an affront to her constituents.
Morgan County long has been at the center of a statewide debate over whether an antiquated statute allows sheriffs to personally keep unspent money designated for feeding jail inmates. The statute in question states that sheriffs “shall be entitled to keep and retain … amounts received for feeding prisoners.” A lone 2008 attorney general’s opinion has interpreted this language as meaning that sheriffs can keep any money left over after feeding inmates as supplemental compensation. Attorney generals’ opinions in 2000 and 2011 came to the more sensible conclusion that sheriffs’ offices, not sheriffs personally, can keep and retain any excess money. The governor and state comptroller recently have spoken out against a system that incentivizes sheriffs to underfeed their inmates.
While there may be an argument that the law is properly interpreted as providing sheriffs with a salary supplement, sheriffs should not use that argument as a cloak to hide information from the public on the use of public funds.
On May 21, according to a warrant produced by the state comptroller, Franklin deposited $19,708.50 into a Peoples Bank of Alabama account labeled “Morgan County Sheriff’s Food Account.” The Decatur Daily requested bank statements relating to the account.
“Unfortunately, documents reflecting the use of these funds are not public records and would therefore not be subject to a public records request,” her lawyer responded.
His response mimics the response of 49 sheriffs who refused to produce records on inmate-food accounts in response to a request from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Center for Human Rights. The convoluted argument unashamedly asserts the proposition that even though a sheriff’s salary is a public record, the compensation he or she receives from taxpayer funds designated as food money is not.
However weak the legal argument is that records on such funds are not public, the ethical argument is weaker.
No law prevents Sheriff Franklin or other sheriffs from being transparent in the handling of these taxpayer funds. Her lawyer’s use of the word “unfortunately” as a preface to refusing to produce the records is disingenuous. If the sheriff believes it to be unfortunate that state law does not require her to produce such records, she can easily remedy that problem by producing them.
If the sheriff is personally keeping taxpayer money designated for the feeding of inmates, she has an obligation to her constituents to reveal how much. This is true of all sheriffs, but especially of the sheriff of Morgan County.
Since 2009, when former Sheriff Greg Bartlett ended up in jail after keeping $212,000 in taxpayer money while underfeeding inmates, Morgan County has been the embarrassing center of the statewide dispute. Sheriff Franklin continued this trend in 2015 when she converted $160,000 in inmate-food money to personal use, in violation of the court order prompted by Bartlett.
In Morgan County and elsewhere, the inevitable result of secrecy is corruption. Instead of focusing on whether her lawyers can find a legal justification for hiding information from the public, Sheriff Franklin should be focused on being transparent to the public she is sworn to serve.