Wednesday, March 13, 2019

How Alabama reporter, up for award, investigated a local sheriff who profited from inmate food funds

Connor Sheets
"Over the course of 2018, Alabama Media Group reporter Connor Sheets single-handedly revealed how a local sheriff had pocketed more than $2 million in state and federal funds earmarked for jail food while inmates were served graying, processed meat from packages labeled 'Not Fit for Human Consumption'," Carmen Nobel reports for Journalist's Resource, a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

After Sheets' stories hit newsstands, Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin lost his re-election bid and he was investigated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Alabama Ethics Commission. The stories landed Sheets a spot as a finalist for the 2019 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded by the Shorenstein Center. It illustrates "the journalistic power of public records, innovative sourcing, detailed narrative and local reporting," Nobel reports.

Nobel sat down with Sheets to give readers an inside look at how he brought the series to print. It began, as so many stories do, with a tip: from local teen Matt Qualls,who wondered why Entrekin paid him for lawn care with checks from a "Food Provision Account." Sheets discovered that an 80-year-old state law allowed sheriffs to keep extra funds meant to feed county jail inmates. 

Etowah County, Ala.
(Wikipedia map)
Entrekin apparently retaliated. Four days after Sheets' story ran, "local police arrested Qualls on charges of felony drug trafficking, alleging in a warrant — signed by Entrekin — that they had found more than 1,000 grams of cannabis in his possession," Nobel reports. Sheets wrote a second story revealing that the police actually found a container with five cups of butter infused with 14 grams of marijuana; that story went viral on Reddit and triggered an avalanche of outraged calls and emails to the sheriff's office. A few days later, the charges against Qualls were reduced to a misdemeanor and he was released from jail (which Sheets wrote about too), Nobel reports.

Qualls' arrest made Sheets even more suspicious, so he searched public records for Entrekin's land purchases, campaign-finance records and Statement of Economic Interest forms that all elected officials in Alabama must file. The records turned out to be a "gold mine," revealing that the sheriff had kept more than $250,000 a year for three years from state inmate food funds, Nobel reports.

"Public requests for internal office documents generated an October 2018 story revealing that Entrekin had funded TV commercials for his reelection campaign using county pistol permit fees," Nobel reports. "Further investigation revealed that the sheriff’s office had been profiting from federal inmate food funds, too, thanks to an arrangement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

Sheets got many tips from sources who read his stories, but much of what he found was publicly available. "There are a lot of stories in documents," Sheets told Nobel. "This was just an example of the power of basic journalism." He offers tips for new investigative reporters, or those who are covering communities new to them:
  1. You can find a lot of sources about community concerns by reading Facebook posts and contacting potential sources on Facebook Messenger.
  2. If you're new in town, make yourself visible to the community you cover. Sheets lives in Birmingham, an hour away from Etowah County and its seat, Gadsden. Just driving around and making conversation with locals is helpful. 
  3. Don't be afraid of public officials, and remember that journalists have power, too.

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