Former Sheriff’s Spending Spree Befuddles Most

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Fmr. Sheriff Meeks of Alabama Shows What Thieves do When They Play the Police

A combination of reports released by our friends at ProPublica and their local partners have brought to fore a multitude of scandals involving abuse of authority and misuse of discretionary funds. Nine sheriffs who took office this year across the state of Alabama have accused their predecessors of destroying public property, wasting taxpayer money or other such steps that abused the public trust undermining their offices.

Nine sheriffs who took office this year across the state of Alabama have accused their predecessors of destroying public property, wasting taxpayer money or other such steps that abused the public trust undermining their offices.

AL.com special report for ProPublica

In rural Covington County, Alabama, Sheriff Blake Turman points to a jumble of electrical cables dangling through the ceiling in his office. A year ago, Turman’s predecessor, Dennis Meeks, used the office’s funds to buy and install a CCTV security system, financial records show. But what’s left of it are some cables dangling through a punched hole in the ceiling.

“You see them wires hanging right there?” Turman asks during an interview in his office, which he took over in January, several months after beating Meeks in a runoff. “That’s where the closed-circuit camera system used to be. He spent $2,800 putting that in there — $2,800 out of discretionary funds, and it’s gone now.”

“You see them wires hanging right there?” Turman asks during an interview in his office, which he took over in January, several months after beating Meeks in a runoff. “That’s where the closed-circuit camera system used to be. He spent $2,800 putting that in there — $2,800 out of discretionary funds, and it’s gone now.”

Sheriff turman on absent security system

The missing video system isn’t the only shortfall Turman has had to contend with since he replaced Meeks as sheriff on Jan. 14. Records were destroyed or removed, he says, while public accounts were depleted to buy a computer system that the office can’t use and ammunition for guns that sheriff’s deputies don’t use. Tens of thousands of public dollars were missing from those same accounts, Turman claimed, providing a reporter with internal sheriff’s office records to support his allegations.

Turman has asked the state law enforcement to inventory equipment supplied by the U.S. Department of Defense and is asking for civil or criminal proceedings to be initiated against his predecessor. To this end, Turman submitted a formal complaint to the Alabama Ethics Commission, that listed four “infractions” that he claims Meeks committed. Among them: More than $100,000 of military surplus equipment went missing while Meeks was in office, and Meeks used public money to pay monthly fees for his deputies to attend a gym that employs his daughter and is co-owned by her husband.

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Turman also alleges that his predecessor, in the final months of his term, purchased more than $6,000 of promotional items which were likely used in his re-election campaign — Frisbees, coloring books and pencils among other paraphrenalia —. as AL.com and ProPublica report.

While Tom Albritton, Executive Director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, declined to comment on Sheriff Turma’s complaint. Turman, however, marches ahead now planning to meet with the Covington County District Attorney’s Office next week to discuss his allegations and possible prosecution of his predecessor.

Exhausting Back and Forth Between Turman & Meeks

“He’s a liar,” Meeks said.

In a May interview, Meeks denied all of Turman’s allegations. Though he did not know what became of the surplus military equipment, and that the payments to the gym owned by his son-in-law were legal. While the promotion material was for the county fair.

He also disputed the notion that he wasted office funds or personally profited from them, challenging Turman’s veracity. Meeks, also, insisted that the video recording system is still on sheriff’s office property.

“It’s out in the storage bin behind the sheriff’s office,” he said. “I was told that they went and got it, that they know where it’s at. I didn’t take it with me.”

Turman said that he still doesn’t have the equipment and that the dispute goes beyond run-of-the-mill campaign fights.

“I understand that maybe people’s feelings get hurt during an election,” Turman said. “I did everything I could to avoid that, but the people spoke. It’s just a shame that the prior administration did it the way they did.”

Federal 1033 Program – Missing DOD Equipment

In March, Turman attended a training session on the federal program that transfers surplus military equipment from D.O.D to local law enforcement agencies. That’s when the magnitude of misuse hit him. Turman said he found that Meeks’ recordkeeping practices were severely lacking and that there seemed to be no record of storage of many items.

The situation Turman describes is perhaps the most extreme. He has enlisted the help of state law enforcement to inventory military equipment supplied by the U.S. Department of Defense and is calling on state authorities to explore potential criminal or civil sanctions against his predecessor.

Since Meeks was first elected sheriff in 2007, the office acquired over 200 pieces of equipment: Utility trucks. Radios. Riflescopes.

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In total, during his tenure, Meeks’ agency received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded equipment from what is known as the 1033 program. More than $414,000 of the items are supposed to still be in the sheriff’s office’s possession, according to a spreadsheet prepared by state authorities.

Over the ensuing weeks, Turman said he and his deputies scoured the sheriff’s office headquarters and other sheriff’s office properties, looking for the items or any records that might reveal what happened to them. He said they found that many of the items were missing.

“We looked high and low, all over our county properties. We called deputies that quit, people that are no longer with us and everything, we rounded up everything we could, but everything else we can’t find,” Turman said.

Turman has sought civil or criminal proceedings against his predecessor

Responding to his request, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which oversees the 1033 program in the state, conducted an inventory. They were unable to account for over 100 pieces of equipment the sheriff’s office was supposed to have in its possession, according to their records said division’s director, Shane Bailey.

The spreadsheet, a copy of which was obtained by AL.com and ProPublica, shows that over $101,000 of the equipment was missing, including night-vision sniper scopes, ballistic eyewear, binoculars, and infrared illuminators.

Bailey said that while “there was some items missing” that were worth “a large amount of money,” they could all be purchased at a local surplus store. “It was no vehicles, no weapons, nothing like that, just your ordinary day-to-day items.”

The 1033 program equipment is provided with the understanding that it will be closely tracked, will be sold only under certain circumstances, and will be returned or destroyed if no longer needed, according to the federal government’s description of the program.

Federal 1033 program allows DOD to hand down surplus military equipment to local law enforcement Departments

Turman said his office sought help from his predecessor’s administration to locate the items “and they really couldn’t care less.”

Meeks said that he has not heard from Turman about the missing equipment.

“I have no idea about that,” he said in May. “No, they have not called me about anything.”

Truman is livid, as possibility looms his department will be shunned from the 1033 program. “It’s nothing out of my pocket at the department level,” he says, “but at the tax level, I pay my taxes like everyone else and it’s wrong, it’s just wrong.”

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A Spending Spree of Mafia-esque Proportions

When Turman took office, he found only $60,000 left in the discretionary funds. He believes it’s a consequence of Meeks blowing through many thousands of dollars purchasing unnecessary items.

“There should have been another $110,000, $120,000 in there, had these frivolous things not been bought.”

Meeks said that he left Turman $84,000 in discretionary funds and that all expenditures made during his tenure were lawful.

“Every bit of that money is in that account. … He don’t even know what he’s talking about,” Meeks said.

During the final months of Meeks’ term, his office spent about $70,000 on an information system to make it easier to look up warrants and other relevant data. Turman says, the technology is “inadequate” and not compatible with other communication systems.

It “just ain’t worth a flip,” Turman sums it all up in a nutshell in his idiosyncratic country style.

Then there is the matter of $25 a month for a number of Meeks’ deputies to be members of the gym, owned by his family, for at least four years, according to the internal financial records.

“According to the state auditors,” maintains Meeks, “I could pay for our deputies and our jail staff, our correction officers, to go to a gym, and it could be paid out of discretionary funds,” he said.

Rachel Riddle, who as Alabama’s chief examiner oversees audits across the state, says “I can’t just tell you blanket whether a gym membership is an acceptable expenditure or not,” Riddle said. “It would depend on the facts of that gym membership within that sheriff’s office and whether it was being used for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”

Gone With The Sheriff – Missing Records and Inventory

During Meeks tenure, the Covington County Sheriff’s Office received hundreds of thousands of dollars of military equipment — including these two Humvees — through a federal program. (ProPublica)

In August, the month after Meeks lost, the sheriff’s office spent over $7,400 on more than 40,000 rounds of ammo, according to sheriff’s office invoices. That’s several times more than the sheriff’s office spent on ammunition in an average month in 2017, invoices show.

“You can’t find those bullets,” Turman said. “I searched and you can’t find them.”

Turman said that deputies likely used some of the ammunition at the gun range, where they each have to shoot about 150 rounds once a year to requalify to carry their pistols. But given the number of deputies and amount of bullets, the numbers just don’t add up.

Furthermore, 5,000 rounds .380 caliber guns were purchased according to an Aug 15, 2017 invoice. What puzzles Turman is that none of Meeks’ deputies were issued .380 pistols, only the former sheriff would occasionally carry one himself.

Nine sheriffs, including Turman, across Alabama, have accused their predecessors of misuse of authority. (ProPublica)

Meeks stays firm on grounds that all ammunition purchases made while he was in charge were made for law enforcement purposes, and that the county never spent general funds on ammunition.

“Any ammo that was bought was either bought for a duty weapon or a backup weapon,” he said. “The county has never ever bought one bullet; all ammo had to be bought out of the discretionary money.”

Does it EVER End?

For now, there is no end in sight, but if a thorough investigation is not carried out suffice to say this saga won’t end with nine sheriffs in Alabama. We think our friends at ProPublica deserve a shout out and, most of all, kudos to there local affiliates for pointing us towards this mess. If you’d like to delve deeper into the reports, and departmental reviews, this reporting is based on, you can head to find out more.

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