Monday, June 24, 2019

Many Alabama sheriffs undermine their successors after losing re-election bids; little oversight constrains them

Steve Guthrie, assistant chief deputy sheriff of Marshall County, Alabama, stands next to barrels of dish soap and boxes of toilet paper in storage behind the county jail, bought by the previous sheriff. (Photo by Bob Miller, special to ProPublica)
In actions ranging from petty to possibly criminal, many Alabama sheriffs who were defeated at the polls have carried on a tradition of last-minute actions meant to undermine their successors. Nine of the 10 new sheriffs in Alabama who defeated incumbents in 2018 said that "last-minute actions by their predecessors had negative impacts on their offices and, by extension, the public," Connor Sheets reports for, in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. "Though other public officials in Alabama often face growing pains and hostile staffs after displacing incumbents, sheriffs are especially vulnerable to the whims of their predecessors. Sheriffs wield far greater power than most other elected officials to spend public funds as they see fit, and they are subject to far less oversight," especially in rural areas.

Two of the nine sheriffs who had reported trouble said their predecessors had done annoying but relatively benign things like failing to have a badge made for the new sheriff, or throwing all the unmarked keys in a pile so the new sheriff would have to try all of them to figure out which went where. Some described more harmful but technically legal actions: One sheriff said his predecessor stopped selling pistol permits and stopped the jail’s work-release program after his defeat; both programs together brought in more than $5,500 per month on average, which meant the new sheriff couldn’t buy sorely needed new equipment for his deputies, Sheets reports.

"But seven of the sheriffs made more serious accusations against their predecessors, many of which were corroborated by internal office records. Among their claims: Outgoing sheriffs pocketed public money, fudged financial reports, wasted sheriff’s office funds and destroyed or stole public property," Sheets reports. "All the former sheriffs who responded to a reporter’s inquiries denied wrongdoing, often insulting their successor or providing a counternarrative aimed at disproving the claims."

One sheriff accused of wrongdoing was former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin; Sheets gained nationwide attention last year and several journalism awards after he discovered that Entrekin had taken home more than $750,000 in funds meant to buy food for jail inmates. While researching this story, Sheets and ProPublica obtained financial records showing that Entrekin pocketed another $269,184 meant to feed jail inmates and federal immigration detainees.

Six of the new sheriffs have requested state audits of their offices and told Sheets they’ll decide how to proceed once they have the results; the other three who reported problems with their predecessors said they’re handling the problems themselves to avoid making waves.

The pattern of outgoing sheriffs sabotaging or hampering their successors goes back decades, according to Bobby Timmons, who has been the executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association since 1975. "Timmons said outgoing sheriffs with grudges have long blown through funds, refused to communicate with incoming sheriffs and have even been known to pull trucks up to the backs of their county jails and fill them with any remaining food, leaving their replacements scrambling to feed inmates," Sheets reports.

Timmons said this sort of thing is common among sheriffs who have lost an election. “The one that gets defeated, he doesn’t want to be defeated, he doesn’t want to lose,” he told Sheets. “And it may have been a dirty campaign, so you’ve got a hate pattern then.”

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