This article was produced in partnership with AL.com, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
A jumble of electrical cables dangles from a hole punched through the ceiling in Sheriff Blake Turman’s brightly lit office in rural Covington County, Alabama, near the Florida Panhandle.
A year ago, Turman’s predecessor, Dennis Meeks, used sheriff’s office funds to buy and install a security camera system, financial records show. But the equipment is no longer there.
“You see them wires hanging right there?” Turman asked during an interview in the 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.”
Turman says he has thoroughly searched the sheriff’s office building for the equipment and has not been able to find it.
The missing video system is just one of a wide array of vagaries and shortfalls Turman says he has had to contend with since he replaced Meeks as sheriff on Jan. 14. Records were destroyed or removed, he said, 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 carry. Turman also said tens of thousands of public dollars were missing from those same accounts and provided a reporter with internal sheriff’s office records that he says support his claims.
Nine sheriffs who took office this year across the state have alleged that their predecessors destroyed public property, wasted taxpayer money or took other steps that abused the public trust and undermined their offices, as AL.com and ProPublica first reported this month. A handful have asked the state to audit their offices.
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.
Last month, Turman submitted a complaint to the Alabama Ethics Commission, reviewed by AL.com and ProPublica, 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.
Turman also alleged that his predecessor, in the final months of his term, purchased more than $6,000 of promotional items emblazoned with his name — Frisbees, coloring books, pencils — that have no use, which AL.com and ProPublica reported.
Tom Albritton, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, declined to comment or confirm whether he had received the complaint.
Turman said he plans to meet with the Covington County District Attorney’s Office next week to discuss his allegations and the question of whether Meeks should be prosecuted.
In a May phone interview, Meeks denied all of Turman’s allegations. He said that he did not know what happened to the surplus military equipment, that the payments to the gym owned by his son-in-law were legal and that he purchased promotional materials every year for the county fair.
He also disputed the notion that he wasted office funds or personally profited from them, and he challenged Turman’s veracity.
“He’s a liar,” Meeks said.
Meeks 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.”
Meeks did not return phone messages requesting additional comment this week.
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.”
Missing Military Surplus
Turman said he knew he had a problem when he attended a training session in March on the federal program that transfers surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies.
He then gathered the limited documentation the sheriff’s office kept of the surplus military equipment it had received during Meeks’ tenure. Turman said he found that Meeks’ recordkeeping practices were severely lacking, and that there seemed to be no information about the locations of many items.
Since Meeks was first elected sheriff in 2007, the office acquired over 200 pieces of equipment.
Utility trucks. Radios. Rifle scopes.
In total, while Meeks was sheriff, his 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 asked state authorities to help him figure out what had happened. Responding to his request, employees of the surplus property division of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which manages the 1033 program in the state, visited the sheriff’s office last month to conduct 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 a spreadsheet the division compiled of the missing items and an interview with the 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 equipment is provided with the understanding that it will be closely tracked, that it will be sold only under certain circumstances, and that it will otherwise be returned or destroyed if it’s no longer needed, according to the federal government’s description of the program.
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.”
Turman said he expects that the federal government will suspend the sheriff’s office from the 1033 program for at least a couple of months. But he said he’s more upset that public money was wasted and that in his opinion the public trust was abused.
“It shows a total lack of accountability, and we have found that throughout the whole time we’ve been here,” he said.
“It’s nothing out of my pocket at the department level, but at the tax level, I pay my taxes like everyone else and it’s wrong, it’s just wrong.”
High and Dry
Turman, who had a long career as a state trooper before becoming sheriff, said he came into office with hopes of quickly getting to work.
That didn’t happen.
The hard drive on his computer had been “wiped clean,” Turman said, and the office’s training and personnel records had either been destroyed or removed from the premises before he arrived.
In the May interview, Meeks said he did delete files from the computer that he “kept on there for me while I was sheriff that would have had nothing to do with him.”
Meeks also said that he may have taken personnel and training records, but they were only copies.
But because he does not have personnel records, Turman said that in most cases he has no way of determining which of his employees have been disciplined. He said that presents a host of problems, including the prospect that there might be deputies with documented histories of overusing force who have been given a clean slate.
“Let’s say you have an employee that keeps showing up late for work every day and it’s been monitored and documented and put in their employee file. Well, his employee file’s thrown away. It’s gone,” Turman said. “And there’s more serious stuff, like use of forces.”
Turman said he had “no help from the prior administration, no communication,” following the election, which left him blindsided by the state of the sheriff’s office.
Meeks disputes that. “Whatever he’s saying, he’s full of shit,” he said.
By the time Turman took office, he says there was only about $60,000 left in the discretionary accounts. That’s because, Turman believes, Meeks blew 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, the sheriff’s office spent about $70,000 on an information system that was supposed to make it easier to look up warrants and other law enforcement data. Turman said, however, that the technology is “inadequate” and cannot be used because it is not compatible with the office’s communications provider.
It “just ain’t worth a flip,” he said.
The office also spent more than $1,500 in the final seven months of Meeks’ term to pay for deputies to be members of Andalusia Health & Fitness, a local gym that state records show is co-owned by his son-in-law, Michael Jackson. Meeks’ daughter Toka Jackson, has taught fitness classes at the gym in the past; does marketing appearances, social media promotion and other tasks for the company; and lists herself as a co-owner on her LinkedIn page.
The sheriff’s office used discretionary funds to pay $25 a month for each of a number of Meeks’ deputies to be members of the gym for at least four years, according to the internal financial records.
Asked why he paid for his deputies to be members of the gym, Meeks said that he made the payments for “probably six years,” and that he did not break the law by doing so.
“According to the state auditors, 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, said that the question of whether Meeks’ gym spending was problematic depends on the circumstances, and that she does not have enough information about the payments to draw a conclusion about whether they were proper.
“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.”
Meeks also spent money toward the end of his term on supplies that Turman said he cannot find.
Thousands of dollars of ammunition purchased in the months following Meeks’ electoral loss have gone missing, according to Turman.
In August, the month after Meeks lost the runoff, the sheriff’s office spent over $7,400 on more than 41,000 rounds of ammunition, 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 that he estimates that only about 20 deputies were authorized to carry pistols last year, that means that about 3,000 rounds would have been shot during the annual requalification exercise. The sheriff’s office should still be in possession of almost all of the remaining ammunition, Turman said.
Beyond that, an Aug. 15 invoice shows that 5,000 rounds of the ammunition the sheriff’s office purchased that month were for .380 caliber guns. Turman said that none of Meeks’ deputies were issued .380 pistols, but that the former sheriff was known to carry one himself.
“There’s only one person that carried a .380. He sat here at this desk,” Turman said, referring to Meeks.
Meeks said 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.”
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.
- Email us at [email protected].
- Here’s how to confidentially leak to us.