Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin has just been outed for scooping up at least $750,000 in federal, state and municipal funds intended to feed inmates for personal use. Is he panicking? Hiring a lawyer? No, like other Alabama sheriffs, he’s arguing it’s perfectly legal.
"The law says it's a personal account and that's the way I've always done it and that's the way the law reads and that's the way I do business," [Entrekin] said in a phone interview Friday. "That's the way the law's written."
The sheriffs’ interpretation isn’t just dubious, it’s outright incorrect. It’s been rejected by Alabama legal authorities, and now it’s sparked an investigation by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
Many sheriffs in Alabama contend that a state law authorizing them to personally “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails permits them to take any amounts they do not spend on food as personal income. “This archaic system is based on a dubious interpretation of state law that has been rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes not to line their own pockets,” said Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It also raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail.”
The sheriffs’ unethical tactics for self-enrichment, often reported in purely legal and financial terms, have immediate, and devastating, consequences for the inmates they oversee.
[The] Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) represents and frequently receives letters from people in jails in counties across Alabama. Many inmates report that the food they are provided is inadequate in quantity or nutritional value, spoiled, or contaminated, such as with insect or rodent droppings, or foreign objects.
As SCHR staff Attorney Aaron Littman puts it, food conditions in Alabama jails range from “not appetizing but adequate to unsafe and unhealthy.”
SCHR and AACLJ have been trying to get sheriffs to produce documentation surrounding financial arrangements for purchasing food for inmates since July 2017. About a dozen sheriffs reported that they aren’t responsible for inmate food funds, Littman noted, while a handful returned the records requested. Forty-nine sheriffs refused to produce their records.
I asked Littman: “Does refusing to produce records suggest the sheriffs are making personal use of those funds?”
“It strikes me that if they weren’t, they’d simply produce records showing they aren’t,” Littman told me. “The logical inference is if you refuse to produce these records on how public tax dollars are being used, they’re being used in a way you’d rather the public not know about.”
Days before the final stated deadline for turning documentation over, a lawyer for the Alabama Sheriffs Association filed a complaint requesting declaratory judgment—that is, asking a court to declare that the sheriffs don’t have to turn over records. In turn, SCHR and AACLJ sought injunctive relief, or an order forcing sheriffs to produce the records under the Alabama Public Records Law.
The organizations set out to make the public aware of this problem and the perverse incentive it creates for sheriffs to enrich themselves at prisoners’ and taxpayers’ expense. They didn’t anticipate this second, almost equally concerning transparency problem: sheriffs who don’t think they need to produce public records.
“Sheriffs are very powerful people, especially in Alabama,” notes Littman. “There’s very limited oversight over them, and their refusal to comply even under threat of suit is pretty striking.”
Although he’s among the sheriffs refusing to produce records, Entrekin, whose annual salary is $93,178.80, did report the extra “compensation” as he amassed it, made no effort to conceal his personal use of the funds, and doesn’t deny a thing (so far).
[E]thics disclosure forms Entrekin filed with the state reveal that over the past three years he has received more than $750,000 worth of additional "compensation" from a source he identified as "Food Provisions."
Entrekin did not deny that he received the money when asked about it via email last week. Ethics forms he filed in previous years do not list any income from such a source.
Entrekin told AL.com last month that he has a personal account that he refers to as his "Food Provision" fund. And Etowah County resident Matthew Qualls said that in 2015 Entrekin paid him to mow his lawn via checks with the words "Sheriff Todd Entrekin Food Provision Account" printed in the upper-left corner. AL.com viewed a photograph of one such check.
Entrekin flagrantly maximized his “Food Provisions” yield. While the previous sheriff used such funds to pay for trays and food service supplies for inmates, the country’s now paying contractors for these things even as Entrekin rakes in massive overages.
Entrekin does not use the funds allocated for inmate feeding to purchase "food trays" and certain "food service supplies" for the Etowah County jail, which the county instead pays contractors to supply, according to county records.
Direct earnings may not be the only way the sheriff benefits. Political supporters have snagged contracts for the supplies and services that could be paid for from the Food Provisions account.
The county awarded contracts for "food service supplies - jail" for fiscal years 2011-2012 and 2014-2015 to Osborn Brothers, a Gadsden company. Information about the specific supplies the company provides is not publicly available. Osborn Brothers, which did not respond to a request for comment, contributed $2,000 to Entrekin's campaign under the name Osborn Foodservice in October 2013.
Entrekin’s supporters have also had luck securing other kinds of country contracts.
On Feb. 1, Entrekin's campaign received one of its largest single contributions to date: $5,000 from Network Communications International Corporation (NCIC.) Etowah County awarded the Texas company a contract to provide "inmate telephone services" on Sept. 20, 2016. NCIC did not respond to a request for comment.
Chevrolet of Boaz contributed $500 to Entrekin's campaign in October 2013. It contributed another $1,000 to his campaign in October 2017 under its former name, Kilpatrick Chevrolet. In December 2014, Etowah County awarded Chevrolet of Boaz a contract to provide the sheriff's office with a "1500 Crew Cab 4WD Truck (or comparable.)" The dealership did not respond to a request for comment.
Curious about what Entrekin’s doing with all that spare cash, that $750,000?
In September, Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin and his wife Karen purchased an orange four-bedroom house with an in-ground pool and canal access in an upscale section of Orange Beach for $740,000.
To finance the purchase, Entrekin got a $592,000 mortgage from Peoples Bank of Alabama, according to public real estate records. The home is one of several properties with a total assessed value of more than $1.7 million that the couple own together or separately in Etowah and Baldwin counties.
Entrekin’s in terrible company. In 2006, in Mobile County, former sheriff Jack Tillman was charged with theft after transferring $13,000 directly into his retirement account. It took a court to get him to give up any claim to the $350,000 in remaining food funds.
A Morgan County sheriff, Greg Bartlett, was held in contempt in 2009 and directed to stop appropriating “extra” food funds after feeding prisoners corndogs for three meals a day for a month. (To maximize his take-home portion of the food funds, Bartlett leaped on the chance to buy half an 18-wheeler’s worth of corndogs for $500. Lest you think this an isolated horror: Another sheriff, Limestone County’s Mike Blakely, bought the other half.)
A successor, Ana Franklin, earned her own contempt citation eight years later after trying to dodge court’s order, claiming she thought it only applied to Bartlett.
Franklin said last year that she loaned $150,000 from the county's inmate food fund to a now-bankrupt used car lot, as AL.com reported at the time. She contended in federal court that she followed the law regarding use of money allocated for inmate feeding, and that she always provided inmates with adequate, nutritious food that did not leave them hungry.
Most recently, Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate—the only sheriff to hand SCHR and AACLJ records that proved a sheriff’s personal use of the inmate food fund—admitted to taking home more than $110,000, but complained that subsequent scrutiny “hurt his feelings.”