$350,000 in jail account prompts heated discussion by Quorum Court


Accusations of malfeasance in office and heated discussions about state audits flew back and forth Thursday night during a special meeting of the Jefferson County Quorum Court before things calmed down and the county’s legislative body was able to get down to business.

The subject was the county budget, and the discovery of more than $350,000 that had been collected by the sheriff’s office over the past year for housing prisoners in the adult jail. Until Wednesday, that money had been in a jail account, rather than in the County General Fund, where state law says it should go.

Herman Ginger, chairman of the Quorum Court’s Finance Committee, raised the possibility of a malfeasance charge, telling Sheriff Gerald Robinson that a state attorney said he should be cited,

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Ginger said, to which Robinson responded “Now you’re talking ignorant.”

Robinson said that as soon as his office discovered the mistake, he instructed Major Lafayette Woods Jr., to “write a check” and transfer the money to County General.

According to figures provided to members of the quorum court, the U.S. Marshals Service has paid a total of $326,150 to the sheriff’s office since November 2012 and an additional $25,000 from what was called “Social Security Incentive Program” for a grand total of $351,150.

“Attorneys for the state recommended a full audit of the sheriff’s department and that you be cited for malfeasance in office for not doing your job,” Ginger told Robinson.

Robinson said he could do the same thing, citing the entire Quorum Court for “not doing their jobs” and said that if his office were to be audited, every other department and office should be as well.

“You do what you’ve got to do and I’ll do what I’ve got to do,” Robinson said. “My office is an open book and we’ve not done anything wrong. It was a mistake and we fixed it.”

County Judge Dutch King said he found it hard to believe “somebody in the sheriff’s office didn’t know about $350,000 sitting in an account.”

Robinson placed part of the blame on a personnel change in his office, saying the former office manager had retired at the end of last year and her replacement might not have known about the account. In addition, Robinson said the marshals service formerly sent a notice of payments each month, but had halted that.

“I was told that the office manager knew about this and questioned it and was told to mind his own business,” King said, prompting an angry response from Robinson who wanted to know where King got the information.

“While we’re talking about money, money from the Public Safety Sales Tax and Detention Facilities Maintenance and Operation Tax are going to District Court,” Robinson said.

The District Court was not listed as a recipient for funds derived from the taxes on the original tax proposals.

King responded by saying that he had been told that Robinson suggested putting two holding cells into the building so that proceeds from the detention facilities tax could be used.

Robinson tried to speak but King said “I have the floor and I will tell you when I relinquish it.”

King then reminded Robinson that King had issued a court order to cover the salaries of employees of the juvenile court for this week.

When King finished, Robinson said that when former County Judge Mike Holcomb approached him about the need for a new district court building, he suggested the holding cells and using detention facilities tax money but said that was supposed to be “a one-time deal.”

“That one-time deal has been going on since 2010,” King said. “After you’ve set a precedent, you’re saying that it can’t be done.”

King also said he had developed a plan to take the Public Safety and Detention Facilities taxes out of the district court budget, but that it was not going to happen immediately.

“As long as it’s being fixed, I don’t have a problem with that,” Robinson said.

As a start, $250,000 that is presently going to the district court from those sales taxes will be going back to the sheriff’s department and the money will be made up from the county general fund.

Justice of the Peace Conley Byrd asked if the amount received from the marshals service would cover the salaries of personnel at the juvenile detention center and the adult jail until the end of January, when the county receives another sales tax check from the state, and County Treasurer Elizabeth Rinchuso said she didn’t know.

Later, Lee Johnson, administrator of the juvenile center, and Chief Deputy Greg Bolin, administrator of the adult jail, said that amount would be sufficient, prompting Byrd to recommend that the money be split evenly between the two to cover salaries and benefits.

At a meeting Tuesday, King said the juvenile center would need 60 to 70 detainees a day to make money, a figure Johnson disagreed with.

According to Johnson, 20 of the 82 beds at the facility are for females, and the remaining 62 are for males. Johnson said that while the detainee population may be 60 to 65, it is possible that some of the remaining beds are designated for females only.

Johnson said an average of 55 beds per day are filled with commitments from Juvenile Court Judge Earnest Brown Jr., “and on average, about 30 DYS (Department of Youth Services) detainees is all we could take.”

Former Jefferson County Judge Jack Jones, for whom the juvenile building is named, said that when the facility was built, county officials knew it would not be a big money-maker, and designated $800,000 from the Public Safety Sales Tax annually for the juvenile center.

“If the people had not passed that tax and built the building, deputies would be hauling prisoners all over the state day and night,” Jones said.

King asked Robinson if he would allow King to take over the juvenile detention center, a request Robinson rejected, saying that as sheriff, he is constitutionally responsible for detention facilities.

After all the discussion, the Quorum Court adopted Byrd’s suggestion, voting to split the $351,150 between the adult and juvenile jails, and transferring those funds into the two budgets by court order, rather than creating a new ordinance.

On Tuesday, the Quorum Court took a portion of the money the sheriff’s office had received from a federal program to pay outstanding bills on the new sheriff’s office, then decided to hold the remainder of that money until it receives a clear determination on what the money can be used for.

On Thursday, the court tabled a discussion about those funds ($177,408.64) until County Attorney Jackie Harris gets more clarification from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Both Robinson and Woods have said that federal guidelines prohibit the use of the money for salaries, while other attorneys say it can be used for salaries.