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How Nine Sheriffs Who Lost Reelection Made Life Harder for Their Successors

Of 10 sheriffs who lost their reelection campaigns last year in Alabama, nine face accusations of impeding their successors. Here’s a rundown of those accusations and how (or if) they responded to them.

Phil Sims’ first priority when he became sheriff wasn’t finances. It was feeding hundreds of people in the Marshall County Jail. The jailhouse kitchen’s refrigerators and shelves were empty when he started on the job, he said. (Bob Miller, special to ProPublica)

This article was produced in partnership with AL.com, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Last year, 10 Alabama sheriffs lost their reelection campaigns. Afterward, nine of them took steps that their successors say negatively affected their ability to perform their new jobs.

Some of the new sheriffs, who took office on Jan. 14, accused their predecessors of pocketing sheriff’s office funds or purchasing thousands of dollars of items the new sheriffs described as wasteful or unnecessary. Other outgoing sheriffs took steps that their successors described as petty, like refusing to communicate for months and purchasing promotional items with their name printed on them on their way out the door. The now-former sheriffs generally disputed these accusations.

Below is a breakdown of some of the allegations made by each new sheriff in interviews with AL.com and ProPublica as part of a yearlong investigation into Alabama sheriffs:

Barbour County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Leroy Upshaw

  • Incoming sheriff: Tyrone Smith

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Smith said he and Upshaw did not speak for “over a year” until the day before the new sheriff took office.

  • Allegations: Smith said Upshaw ceased issuing pistol permits and halted the county’s jail work-release program in the final months of his term, depriving the county of thousands of dollars of revenue that Smith said he wishes he had for new body cameras and radar detectors. Smith said there was “not much” money in the sheriff’s discretionary funds, jail food funding was about “$6,000 in arrears,” and “there was not a lot of food” in the jail’s kitchen when he took office.

  • Response: Upshaw did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Butler County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Kenny Harden

  • Incoming sheriff: Danny Bond

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Bond says he and Harden did not speak between the June primary and the day before the new sheriff took office.

  • Allegations: Bond said Harden did not provide accurate information about how much money was left in the office’s discretionary fund. “He has a figure that he says he left, and I have a different figure, so we’ll just agree to disagree,” Bond said. He declined to provide those figures. Bond added that he was left without transition instructions. “They don’t tell you anything or show you anything. You just have to do it on your own.”

  • Response: Harden confirmed that he and Bond went months without speaking before Bond took office. Asked about the discretionary funds, Harden said the new sheriff is “just new and don’t know how the system works.” Harden said he left about $80,000 of discretionary funds for Bond, far more than the $15,000 Harden said the previous sheriff left for him. Harden added that he did not spend discretionary funds “on anything personal, and everything that was purchased was left” for Bond.

Covington County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Dennis Meeks

  • Incoming sheriff: Blake Turman

  • Election defeat: Runoff

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: “I had no help from the prior administration, no communication,” Turman said. “Prior to the transition, I came and asked if I could come and maybe help do inventory or be involved, and I was denied.”

  • Allegations: Turman said he filed a complaint last month with the state Ethics Commission and plans to submit a report to local prosecutors about Meeks’ actions during the transition. Internal financial records provided to AL.com and ProPublica show that in September, two months after he lost the runoff, 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. 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. “I have no idea where it went,” Turman said. “It did not come here though.”

  • Response: Meeks said that he purchased the promotional items with office funds and left them behind in the sheriff’s office. He said he bought similar items to distribute at the county fair every year he was sheriff but he was unable to attend the most recent one. Meeks said Turman did not contact him after the election. “They have not called me about anything,” Meeks said.

    Asked about the discretionary funds Turman said were missing, Meeks called his successor a liar. “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.”

Crenshaw County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Mickey Powell

  • Incoming sheriff: Terry Mears

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 4

  • Communication after the defeat: Mears said he was given 1 ½ hours worth of transitional assistance the day before he took office.

  • Allegations: Mears said the sheriff’s office spent thousands of dollars of discretionary funds in Powell’s final months in office on items Mears considers unnecessary or wasteful, including “$3,000 to $4,000” for a gun safe. Mears said Powell told him there was upward of $73,000 in the discretionary fund, but “it was around $20,000 or $30,000. … The guy I relieved may have just been making up numbers.”

  • Response: Powell did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Etowah County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Todd Entrekin

  • Incoming sheriff: Jonathon Horton

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: “I had 7 months in between [winning the primary and entering the office in January] with zero transitional assistance from the past administration,” Horton said in an email.

  • Allegations: Internal sheriff’s office records show that between July 11 and Dec. 11, Entrekin received $269,184 worth of checks from sheriff’s office jail food accounts. The records show the funds had initially been allocated to feed state and municipal inmates and federal immigration detainees in the Etowah County Jail.

  • Response: Entrekin did not respond to requests for comment. Donald Rhea, an attorney for Entrekin, did not respond to questions about the money the records show he kept. Rhea emailed the following statement: “On the night of the election, Sheriff Entrekin was with District Attorney Jody Willoughby. Sheriff Entrekin called Sheriff-elect Horton, congratulated him and offered to meet with him to discuss the transition that would take place. There was no additional contact between Sheriff Entrekin and Sheriff-elect Horton until October 12, 2018. At that time, Sheriff Entrekin again called Sheriff-elect Horton and offered to meet with him to discuss the transition. No meeting ever occurred.”

    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. Entrekin said in July that the federal government was investigating his handling of inmate-feeding funds. No charges have been filed in that investigation, and Rhea 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.”

Fayette County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Rodney Ingle

  • Incoming sheriff: Byron Yerby

  • Election defeat: General

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Yerby said he wasn’t allowed to enter the sheriff’s office until 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 14.

  • Allegations: Yerby said the jail food fund was so depleted when he took office that he had to ask the county commission to “give me some money to feed the inmates. We only had enough food for barely one meal.” He also contended that Ingle “spent all the money” in the sheriff’s office’s various discretionary funds, leaving “just a few dollars.” The day before the election, the accounts held several thousand dollars, Yerby said.

  • Response: Ingle confirmed that he and the new sheriff did not communicate for months. Responding to Yerby’s claim that there was almost no money available to feed inmates when he took office, Ingle provided copies of cashier’s checks showing that on Jan. 23 — nine days after Yerby took office — he paid the new sheriff more than $9,300 from a jail food account in Ingle’s name. The money was paid via checks made out to Yerby himself. Ingle said he did not know how much money he left in the office’s discretionary accounts, but called Yerby’s assertion that they were nearly empty “a joke,” adding that “anything that was spent out of those funds was used for something legitimate.”

Jefferson County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Mike Hale

  • Incoming sheriff: Mark Pettway

  • Election defeat: General

  • Years in office: 16

  • Communication after the defeat: David Agee, a captain in the sheriff’s office under Pettway, said, “We don’t really have anything to compare the transition to, but I will say that things have been orderly.”

  • Allegations: Speaking on Pettway’s behalf, Agee cited no problems with the transition: “We don’t have any issues to report. … 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.”

Lawrence County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Gene Mitchell

  • Incoming sheriff: Max Sanders

  • Election defeat: General

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Chris Waldrop, a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office under Sanders, said that Sanders attempted to call Mitchell after the election but never got a response, and that the new sheriff was not allowed to enter the sheriff’s office building until 12 a.m. on Jan. 14.

  • Allegations: Sanders said Mitchell used discretionary funds to purchase seven 2019 Chevy Tahoes for the sheriff’s office after he lost his bid for a fourth term as sheriff. The total bill, Waldrop said, was $215,173, or “well over half” the discretionary money. Waldrop said Mitchell also sold $5,940 of food from the jail’s pantry to the county and personally kept the funds, further depleting the resources Sanders had available when he took office. Mitchell was legally permitted to sell the food and pocket the funds under a policy Gov. Kay Ivey instituted last summer, but most new sheriffs said their predecessors chose not to do so.

  • Response: Mitchell said it’s “not true” that he was not available to help Sanders with the transition: “I was there through the last day, and I haven’t seen Sanders at all. You got fed more lies than a Christmas turkey’s going to eat.” Mitchell confirmed that he bought the vehicles, but he said that they were “for law enforcement purposes” and that “I would’ve bought the cars whether I stayed or not. I didn’t buy the cars because the new sheriff came in, that had nothing to do with it. We were buying the cars for the sheriff’s department.” He also confirmed that he sold back jail food but that he didn’t remember the dollar amount: “I don’t remember how much it was but the clerk wrote me a check.”

Marshall County

  • Outgoing sheriff: J. Scott Walls

  • Incoming sheriff: Phil Sims

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Sims said that he had no communication with Walls after the primary, and that he was barred from entering the sheriff’s office building until about 15 minutes before he became sheriff at 12 a.m. on Jan. 14.

  • Allegations: Records show — and two sheriff’s office employees confirmed — that more than $81,000 of wire transfers were made from the sheriff’s office’s general fund into one of Walls’ personal bank accounts between December 2017 and August 2018. More than $29,000 of the wire transfers were made after Walls’ electoral loss in June. Sims said five work smartphones used by Walls and his top brass had holes drilled through them, and that the hard drives had been removed from his and his chief deputy’s computers. Records show that in the final months of Walls’ term, the sheriff’s office also spent more than $20,000 on 24,000 rolls of toilet paper, and $9,000 on 450 cases of trash bags.

  • Response: Rhea, who is also a lawyer for Walls, declined to provide a response to repeated requests for comment from the former sheriff. Walls’ wife declined to connect a reporter with her husband, and Walls did not respond to texts and voice messages left at multiple numbers listed as his in public records and investigative databases. In October, The Advertiser-Gleam reported that Walls defended the five-figure toilet paper purchase. “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-based newspaper. “But if [county officials] don’t want us to do that, we will buy just enough to get by.”

Walker County

  • Outgoing sheriff: Jim Underwood

  • Incoming sheriff: Nick Smith

  • Election defeat: Runoff

  • Years in office: 4

  • Communication after the defeat: Smith said he was not allowed to enter the Walker County Sheriff’s Office until two days before he took office.

  • Allegations: Underwood spent about $162,000 of discretionary funds between August and October — more than was spent over the 10 previous months — according to internal sheriff’s office records. The last-minute purchases included more than $9,000 for black rubber gloves purchased at $70 per box in January and $13,050 to buy a new washing machine and have it delivered to the jail, according to the records. Smith said he found the same gloves selling online for $10 a box and a similar washing machine retailing online for $1,800. Underwood also used discretionary funds to buy four new vehicles for the sheriff’s office, including a $32,671 Toyota Camry.

  • Response: Underwood said he did not personally order the gloves and doesn’t know who did: “It sounds like an excessive amount for whoever ordered them.” He said that a county employee decided which washing machine to buy. “You can always find cheaper somewhere, but it’s to your own detriment to buy cheaper.” Underwood said that he only spent discretionary money in ways that were legal, and that he left Smith “somewhere around $150,000” in such funds. “Whatever money was spent out of that discretionary money was lawful. One thing I think anyone would tell you — we did what’s right,” he said. “There’s no way I would jeopardize a 45-year career in law enforcement for some monetary amount.”

Help us investigate. ProPublica and AL.com will be investigating the extraordinary power of Alabama sheriffs all year. Are you from Alabama? Do you have reason to believe we should be looking into your sheriff or sheriff’s office? Get in touch.

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