Shortly after Phil Sims became the sheriff of Marshall County, Alabama, at 12 a.m. on Jan. 14, he found a cardboard box in a storage closet containing five government-issued smartphones, each with multiple holes drilled clear through them.
It was the first time Sims had been allowed to enter the sheriff’s office, a red-brick building overlooking Lake Guntersville, a foggy bass-fishing mecca, since he defeated longtime Sheriff J. Scott Walls in the June primary election.
It didn’t take long for Sims to learn that the destroyed iPhones and Androids had belonged to his predecessor and his top brass. Sims also discovered that the hard drives had been removed from the computers in his and his chief deputy’s offices, and reams of records were nowhere to be found.
The records Walls did leave behind revealed that in the months following his electoral loss, he was wired tens of thousands of dollars from the sheriff’s office’s general fund, and more than $30,000 was missing from its commissary fund. The records, which were reviewed by AL.com and ProPublica, show that the sheriff’s office spent tens of thousands of public dollars on expenditures that Sims described as unnecessary and excessive, including over 20,000 rolls of toilet paper, hundreds of boxes of garbage bags and 10 massive drums of dishwashing liquid.
Donald Rhea, a lawyer for Walls, didn’t respond to repeated emailed requests for comment on a detailed list of claims made by Sims. Walls’ wife declined to connect a reporter with her husband and hung up the phone, and Walls did not respond to text and voice messages left at multiple numbers listed as his in public records.
Sims is not the only new sheriff who accused his predecessor of taking advantage of the power of his office as his term wound down. In fact, his predicament is just one example of a dubious but little-known tradition of Alabama sheriffs hobbling those who defeat them at the polls.
AL.com and ProPublica interviewed nine of the 10 new sheriffs who won elections against incumbents last year. All nine said that last-minute actions by their predecessors had negative impacts on their offices and, by extension, the public. A captain in the office of the tenth, Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway, said there were no problems during his transition.
Many of the sheriffs alleged that their predecessors acted in ways that could be described as vindictive hazing: One failed to have a badge made for the new sheriff; another threw all the sheriff’s office’s unmarked keys in a pile, leaving his replacement to figure out which went to which door or vehicle.
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.
The findings are part of a yearlong examination by AL.com and ProPublica into how Alabama sheriffs are overseen and the vast county-by-county disparities in how they execute their duties and enforce the law.
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.
In Alabama, sheriffs are the law beyond city limits, ruling over small towns, unincorporated farmlands and suburbs. Unlike police chiefs appointed by mayors and beholden to city councils, sheriffs answer to no one but the voters who elect them. State legislators and other county officials are typically unwilling to cross them.
Every day, the state’s 67 sheriffs make decisions about what laws to enforce, what their deputies should focus on and who they should arrest. They run county jails, partner with the federal government and other agencies, and campaign to stay in office. Many of them oversee multimillion-dollar budgets, and every sheriff is largely responsible for deciding what county law enforcement activities taxpayers should pay for.
Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, called for authorities to “fully investigate whether any laws were broken” by outgoing sheriffs after they were defeated in last year’s elections. The SPLC has long studied sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies across the U.S., and it has sued sheriffs in several states, including Alabama, in recent years over alleged misconduct and abuse of power.
“At the very least, the conduct described and evidenced is a severe violation of the public’s trust and at worst, may violate the law,” Graybill said.
At least three sheriffs found ways to take home public money on their way out the door.
Last year, AL.com reported that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin pocketed more than $750,000 worth of funds initially allocated to purchase food for jail inmates between 2015 and 2017, and purchased a $740,000 beach house.
Sheriff’s office financial documents recently obtained by ProPublica and AL.com via public record request show that in the six months after his June electoral loss, Entrekin personally received an additional $269,184 worth of checks from sheriff’s office accounts. The records show that the money was initially allocated to feed federal immigration detainees and state and municipal inmates housed in the county jail.
Entrekin did not respond to requests for comment via phone and text message, and Rhea, who is also his attorney, did not respond to emailed questions. Rhea instead provided a short statement denying new Sheriff Jonathon Horton’s assertion that Entrekin refused to speak with him after the election.
Last year, Entrekin said publicly that he had a legal right to leftover jail food funds under a Depression-era law. The state Legislature has since passed a law prohibiting sheriffs from keeping funds allocated to feed state inmates that they didn’t use for that purpose.
But lawyers and law professors have said that Entrekin likely ran afoul of federal law by also keeping federal jail food money, as AL.com reported in December. In July, Entrekin told AL.com that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General was investigating his handling of inmate-feeding funds. No charges have been filed, and Rhea, Entrekin’s lawyer, denied any misconduct at the time.
“He stands ready to cooperate fully and completely in the investigation that, hopefully, will begin immediately,” Rhea, said in a July statement. “That is what innocent people do.”
Six sheriffs say that they have requested state audits of their offices’ finances and that they will decide how to proceed once they have the results in hand. The other three say they are handling the fallout themselves and want to avoid causing more bad blood.
“As far as criminal or unethical, we will see,” Sims said. “I’ve asked for an audit from the [Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts] to address any issues.”
Sheriff Blake Turman of Covington County said that he filed a complaint last month with the state Ethics Commission, which has not been previously reported, and that he also plans to submit a report to local prosecutors. Both are related to former Sheriff Dennis Meeks’ spending during the transition period and what Turman alleges to be missing public funds and property. Meeks denies wrongdoing.
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.
In Marshall County, Sims’ first priority when he became sheriff wasn’t finances. It was feeding the hundreds of people in the jail one floor below his office. The jailhouse kitchen’s refrigerators and shelves were empty when he walked in, he said.
“There was no food,” Sims said. An inmate told his chief deputy, Doug Gibbs, that there had been 40 pounds of rice in the pantry the weekend before Sims became sheriff, but an employee of the outgoing sheriff had instructed the inmate to pour it down a garbage disposal. Gibbs confirmed the interaction in an interview.
James Hutcheson, chairman of the Marshall County Commission, said that Roto-Rooter had to be hired to clean out the disposal, which Sims said was still clogged with soggy rice when he took office.
“I was there at midnight that night Sheriff Sims took office, and I was aware of the rice being poured down the drain and everything,” Hutcheson said. “I was concerned about the situation.”
But Sims had planned for the worst and arranged ahead of time for a food distributor to make a delivery in the early morning of Jan. 14, just in time to prepare breakfast and serve it to the inmates.
“That’s the kind of childish crap we deal with,” he said, referencing the dumping of the rice down the drain. “It was food that was bought and reimbursed by the state that was bought for the purpose of feeding the inmates.”
“A Hate Pattern”
Twenty new sheriffs took office in Alabama on Jan. 14. Half of them replaced sheriffs who retired or otherwise left their positions without running for reelection, handling the transition in a manner the new sheriffs generally described in public statements as fair and congenial. The other 10 sheriffs beat incumbents — eight of whom had held the position for at least 12 years — in last year’s primary, runoff or general elections.
The handover appears to have gone smoothly for only one of the 10 newly elected sheriffs. Capt. David Agee, of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, said the transfer of power from former Sheriff Mike Hale to Pettway proceeded without incident. Pettway is the first black sheriff in the history of Jefferson County, the most populous county in Alabama and home to Birmingham, the largest city in the state.
“We don’t have any issues to report,” Agee said. “The men and women of the sheriff’s office are professionals and they’re adjusting well and we’re moving forward with everything we need to do.”
Bobby Timmons has served as executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association since 1975. The bolo tie-wearing octogenarian, who previously served as a state legislator and sheriff of Jefferson County, has been such a powerful advocate for sheriffs over the course of his career that the association named its headquarters in downtown Montgomery after him.
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.
In most of the counties that saw sheriffs voted out of office last year, their replacements said they believed the former sheriffs took detrimental steps that were motivated by pettiness or anger.
For over six weeks, Terry Mears, the sheriff of Crenshaw County, did not have a badge. Though his new deputies had shiny golden stars awaiting them when Mears assumed office on Jan. 14, the rural county’s new sheriff says he had to order one for himself that he didn’t receive until Feb. 27.
The previous sheriff, Mickey Powell, had badges made for every sheriff’s office employee who required one except, Mears said, for him. Powell did not respond to repeated requests for comment made via email and telephone.
Timmons said it’s common for sheriffs to engage in small feuds with their successors.
“The one that gets defeated, he doesn’t want to be defeated, he doesn’t want to lose,” he said. “And it may have been a dirty campaign, so you’ve got a hate pattern then.”
Impact on the Public
As they settle into their jobs, newly elected sheriffs say moves by their predecessors near the ends of their terms have made it more difficult for them to keep the public and their deputies safe, enforce laws and execute the essential duties of their offices.
Barbour County Sheriff Tyrone Smith said the transition from former Sheriff Leroy Upshaw “has really been a challenge” for his office. Following his defeat in the June primary election, Upshaw stopped selling pistol permits and halted the jail’s work-release program, two vital revenue streams in the cash-strapped county of about 25,000 people near Alabama’s southeastern corner, Smith said.
Over the 46 months ending April 30, 2016, Barbour County brought in an average of about $5,400 per month from pistol permit fees and hundreds of dollars per month from its work-release program, according to the state’s most recent audit of the sheriff’s office.
Smith said those moves and several other decisions Upshaw made in his final months left the department temporarily unable to pay for better equipment.
His deputies’ cars needed new radar detectors. Their body cameras were outdated and needed to be replaced, Smith said.
“There’s some things that my deputies need right now that the funding is not available for right now.”
Upshaw did not respond to repeated requests for comment made via email, voicemails left at multiple numbers listed as his in public records and phone messages left with his current employer, the sheriff’s office in neighboring Russell County.
Though counties foot the bill for most sheriff’s office salaries, building upgrades and other major and recurring expenses, discretionary funds are a lifeblood for sheriffs, who use them for everything from uniforms and ammunition to vehicles and office software. The money is generated by assessing fees for pistol permits, auctioning off confiscated items, selling items in jail commissaries and other efforts. It is then divided into separate accounts.
The Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts periodically audits sheriff’s finances, including discretionary accounts, and they are generally subject to review by county financial officers. Sections of the state code that govern individual counties bar most sheriffs from using the funds for anything other than legitimate sheriff’s office needs. But only sheriffs have the authority to decide what their offices purchase with the funds, and they largely spend them as they please.
So it’s a major blow to new sheriffs when they find that their discretionary funds have been depleted.
Turman, the new Covington County sheriff, said he could have used the discretionary funds the former sheriff, Meeks, spent on his way out of office to better equip his deputies, who each carry one of a variety of mismatched pistols, many of which require different types of ammunition.
“When it comes down to a firefight, if you run out of ammo and you look at your buddy and say, ’Hey, throw me a magazine,’ but you can’t throw them a magazine because your ammo is a different caliber, that’s a problem,” Turman said during a March interview in his modest office in rural Andalusia.
Internal financial records provided to AL.com and ProPublica show that in September, two months after he lost his reelection bid, Meeks used more than $6,200 of sheriff’s office funds to purchase coloring books, Frisbees, pencils and other promotional items emblazoned with his name.
Meeks confirmed that he purchased the promotional items with office funds and left them behind in the sheriff’s office. He said he bought a similar cache of items to distribute at the county fair every year he was sheriff.
“It was not bought just to be spending money,” he said. “It was bought for the county fair, but I had something come up so I couldn’t make it this year.”
Turman also said he’s been unable to locate about $40,000 from the state to pay for feeding inmates in December 2018 and January 2019. He provided an internal sheriff’s office record suggesting a $39,900 shortfall in the jail food fund that he said corroborates his claim.
“I have no idea where it went,” Turman said. “It did not come here though.”
In a phone interview, Meeks called his successor a liar, adding that, “every bit of that money is in that account.”
“I could’ve spent every bit of [the discretionary money] if I wanted to, because I was the sheriff, but I didn’t,” Meeks said. “Until Jan. 14, I was still sheriff and I still had to operate the sheriff’s office and had to spend money. I couldn’t wait for his little butt to get there.”
Back in Marshall County, in north Alabama, Sims says he could have used the tens of thousands of dollars of sheriff’s office funds Walls spent on what Sims called unnecessary items in the final months of his term. Sims said he would have replaced bulletproof vests and purchased new Tasers. He says he would have also bought new handguns to replace the aging ones many of his deputies were carrying when he took office, some of which were 20-plus years old.
Sims says that since Jan. 14, the Marshall County Commission has spent more than $900,000 on equipment, training, building repairs and other sheriff’s office expenses that he says were neglected while Walls was sheriff. In March, the county announced it was accepting bids to complete upgrades to the county’s jail that were requested by Sims and are expected to cost taxpayers around half a million dollars.
Hutcheson said he was “disappointed” to learn of the poor state of the sheriff’s office’s equipment, training and facilities under Walls.
“I believe in law enforcement having the equipment they need, and it should be kept in good working condition because they go out and put their lives on the line every day for the citizens and they should have good, updated equipment,” Hutcheson said. “We’re working day and night trying to update the sheriff’s [office] as quickly as possible.”
Gloves, Guns and Cars
Nick Smith, the new sheriff of Walker County who, at 35, is the youngest sheriff currently serving in Alabama, cut his teeth as a small-town police chief. Smith looks the part of sheriff with his crisp, bright-white uniforms and close-cropped hair. He takes pride in his ability to run a tight ship and limit costs, but he says he believes many sheriffs, including his predecessor Jim Underwood, fail to live up to that mission, in part because they act as if discretionary funds are “their money” to spend.
Internal Walker County Sheriff’s Office financial records reveal that discretionary fund spending skyrocketed after Underwood lost his reelection bid in July. Underwood spent approximately $162,000 worth of the funds in just three months, from August through October 2018. That’s $9,000 more than was spent in the 10 previous months.
Underwood’s last-minute purchases with discretionary money included more than $9,000 worth of black rubber gloves purchased at $69.99 per box about a week before he left office and $13,050 to buy a new washing machine and have it delivered to the jail.
Smith said that he was able to quickly find the same model of gloves retailing online for $10 a box, and that he found a similar washing machine for sale online for over $10,000 less than the outgoing sheriff spent.
The records show that Underwood also used discretionary funds to purchase four brand-new sheriff’s office vehicles, including a $32,671 Toyota Camry.
Underwood said in an interview at his home in a quiet community on the outskirts of Jasper that he did not personally order the gloves, that a county employee made the decision about which washing machine to buy and that he would have bought the cars even if he had won the election.
“I don’t know about the gloves. I didn’t order the gloves. It sounds like an excessive amount for whoever ordered them,” he said. “It’s like anything else you purchase. You can always find cheaper somewhere, but it’s to your own detriment to buy cheaper.”
Underwood said that he left Smith “somewhere around $150,000” in the sheriff’s office’s discretionary accounts, which is in line with what the records show.
“Whatever money was spent out of that discretionary money was lawful,” Underwood said. “There’s no way I would jeopardize a 45-year career in law enforcement for some monetary amount.”
Smith says the thousands of sheriff’s office dollars Underwood spent on such big-ticket purchases should have instead been left behind for him to use.
“I would rather have the money,” Smith said in an interview. “When someone is going out of office, I would rather, not just here but statewide, [they] just leave that money and let the next incoming sheriff spend that for what he sees fit for his administration.”
Aaron Littman, staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based nonprofit civil rights law firm that advocates for criminal justice reform in Alabama and has sued sheriffs across the state for financial records, said in a statement that sheriffs “are not feudal kings” and need to be held accountable.
“These allegations, along with a long track record of sheriffs misappropriating jail food funds, make clear that increased transparency and aggressive oversight is necessary,” he said.
“Just to Spend the Money”
Today, five months after he became Marshall County’s top law enforcement officer, Sims is still trying to sort out the finances of the office he won.
Between December 2017 and August 2018, more than $81,000 worth of wire transfers were made from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office’s general fund into one of Walls’ personal bank accounts, according to internal sheriff’s office records and interviews with two sheriff’s office employees who reviewed the documents.
The records show that no other wire transfers were made from the fund over the nine-month period, and the two sheriff’s office employees said they did not know why the disbursements — more than $29,000 of which took place after Walls lost his reelection bid — were made.
This is not the first time questions have been raised about how Walls managed sheriff’s office funds. In August 2015, the state Department of Examiners of Public Accounts released an audit report stating that between January 2012 and February 2014 the sheriff’s office used over $12,000 of public funds on “payments made without legal authority” and expenditures that “were not for a law enforcement purpose.” The report stated that the office spent $750 to pay “property taxes of an individual” and thousands more on unauthorized uniform allowances, travel expenses, and food, coffee and flower purchases. Walls repaid most of the money, but he declined to pay back over $1,000, prompting the agency to “certify it to the district attorney for collection,” according to the report.
That same month, the Alabama Ethics Commission alleged that Walls had violated ethics law, though it did not disclose details of the allegations, and referred the results of its investigation into his conduct to the state attorney general’s office. Charges were never filed, and a special prosecutor’s investigation into the alleged violation was dropped in August 2016. Walls denied any wrongdoing in a statement he provided at the time to media outlets, including the Sand Mountain Reporter newspaper.
Sims also complained about a series of large purchases the sheriff’s office made over the final months of Walls’ term, including an outlay of more than $20,000 for 24,000 rolls of toilet paper and $9,000 for 450 cases of trash bags. The sheriff’s office also purchased 10 55-gallon drums of dishwashing liquid, but Sims has not been able to determine how much they cost. To put that spending in context, the sheriff’s office has just $15,000 budgeted for janitorial supplies this year.
In October, The Advertiser-Gleam reported that Walls defended the five-figure toilet paper purchase. Sims says he was ultimately able to return around $5,000 worth of the rolls.
“We have always bought supplies for the jail in bulk for the year when we bought and kept it in the warehouse,” Walls said, according to the Guntersville newspaper. “But if [county officials] don’t want us to do that, we will buy just enough to get by.”
Gibbs, Sims’ chief deputy, says he believes all the spending amounts to nothing more than a cynical ploy to undermine the new sheriff.
“They bought a bunch of unnecessary items just to spend the money, to keep us from having it.”
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
- Contributions allow us to hire more journalists
- Contributions allow us to provide free memberships to those who cannot afford them
- Contributions support independent, non-corporate journalism