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Wednesday, 21 March 2007 00:00

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: Commissioners send meal deal to DA for investigation

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The Swain County Board of Commissioners has formally asked the district attorney to investigate spending practices by former sheriff Bob Ogle.

 

Ogle allegedly dipped into the account for feeding jail inmates to boost his own salary. The call for an investigation is an odd twist of events, however, since the county commissioners seemingly have known about the meal kickback and its use for years.

For decades, the Swain County commissioners have paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed inmates in the county jail. The sheriff was never asked to account for how he spent the money. If he could feed the inmates for less, the remainder of the meal fund could be used however he pleased.

The meal kickbacks frequently were used to supplement the sheriff’s personal salary, which otherwise is the lowest in the state. In recent years, the surplus from feeding inmates potentially amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, according to county records.

The arrangement, right or wrong, wasn’t Ogle’s invention. It was based on decades of precedent.

“That’s the way it’s always been done,” said Dave Wiggins, a Swain County sheriff in the 1970s. “It’s been done that way as far back as I can remember.”

There are accounts of the meal kickback arrangement dating back to the 1940s when the sheriff and his family still lived on the first floor of the jail.

While many behind the scenes apparently knew about the meal fund, it has been made highly public in recent months, prompting county commissioners to acknowledge the improper use of meal money by the sheriff.

“The board has decided to turn the matter over to proper authorities for further investigation,” Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones announced at the commissioners meeting last week.

 

Outcry

Controversy over the meal deal first erupted last fall. Commissioners voted to end in-house preparation of meals for inmates by the sheriff, killing the meal slush fund and effectively reducing the sheriff’s salary.

Public outcry ensued over the timing of the vote — the move came just two weeks before a new sheriff was slated to take office. Many saw the 11th-hour move as partisan retribution by a Democratic board against the newly elected Republican sheriff, Curtis Cochran. Cochran’s narrow victory over Ogle was an upset of sorts in a county historically dominated by Democrats.

Cochran saw his salary shrink drastically just days before he was slated to take office. On the books, the sheriff’s salary was $38,000 a year. But by some accounts, the salary was more than $100,000 thanks to the meal fund.

Cochran and a large crowd of supporters packed the commissioners meeting to oppose the 11th-hour move, but to no avail. Commissioner David Monteith was the only board member who voted against it, not because he supported the meal fund but due to the questionable timing.

Controversy over the move continues to boil. The large crowd that packed that commissioners meeting last fall hasn’t dissipated. Four months later, it’s still standing room only at commissioners’ meetings with chairs spilling out into the hallway. Those packing the meetings seem dissatisfied with the leadership on the board of commissioners and the way county business is conducted in general. Each meeting brings a new host of complaints lodged during the public comment session.

A recurring theme, however, has been the sheriff’s salary. Sheriff Cochran has returned to the commissioners three times asking for a boost in his salary, along with extra deputies and cars. All this could be funded with what was previously pumped into the meal deal fund, Cochran argues.

 

Cochran’s cause

When commissioners ended the meal deal, they initially decided to buy prepared meals from the Swain County Hospital and have them delivered. But it actually cost the county more — $6 more per inmate per week than the rate the county paid Ogle, meal fund and all.

The food could clearly be prepared more cheaply in-house, where inmates do the cooking for free and food is ordered wholesale.

So the commissioners ended their contract with the hospital after a month and adopted a novel idea: prepare the food in-house at the jail but pay only for the actual cost of the food. Cochran saves his invoices from food purchases and turns them in to the county.

So far, Cochran is spending about $6,000 to $7,000 a month on food. Ogle was getting $13,000 to $14,000 a month for roughly the same number of inmates. Cochran wants to apply the savings toward a salary increase for him and hiring two extra deputies. The board of commissioners weren’t sold on the idea.

Cochran was determined to prove his point, however. According to state law, it is illegal for county commissioners to “reduce the salary, allowances or other compensation” of the sheriff in an election year unless they state their intention to do so early on — not after they see who gets elected.

But ending the meal kickbacks technically doesn’t count as reducing the sheriff’s salary, allowances or compensation, according to County Manager Kevin King. Technically, the county didn’t know that the sheriff was using the meal money for anything other than food.

“There is no record that a sheriff has ever said they make money providing meals to inmates, because if they did it would be going against state law,” King said last fall.

It seemed Cochran had to prove his case. So he began culling through back receipts and checks that would show the meal account indeed was used to supplement the sheriff’s salary. When Cochran made his third appeal before commissioners last week, he brought along the office assistant that wrote checks from the account.

Commissioner David Monteith questioned her about the use of the meal account.

“Was anything else beside checks to food vendors written out of that account?” Monteith asked.

“Yes,” replied Sandy Jenkins.

“Anything personal?” Monteith asked.

“Yes,” Jenkins replied.

“Out of the money that was to be used for food, there were personal checks written?” Monteith asked.

“Yes,” Jenkins replied.

Monteith’s line of questioning was cut short by County Attorney Kim Lay.

“I don’t think this is really the forum to do this in,” Lay said.

Chairman Glenn Jones then announced the county had no choice but to turn the issue over to the district attorney to handle.

“When he implied Bob Ogle had used the food money for compensation, we were forced to turn it over the district attorney,” King said.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey would not comment on the matter beyond saying that he had received a letter from the county about the issue.

“I am not going to confirm or deny that there is an investigation,” Bonfoey said.

Cochran said he did not intend to get Ogle in trouble, referring to Ogle as a friend.

“I don’t blame Bob Ogle,” Cochran said. “Whatever he made, he made.”

Cochran said he only wanted to prove to commissioners that the surplus from feeding inmates was and always has been part of the sheriff’s compensation and allowances.

The commissioners have unanimously tabled Cochran’s request for a raise and extra deputies pending the outcome of the investigation. Cochran said he doesn’t understand what that has to do with it.

“I don’t know what their rationale is,” Cochran said. “There’s none that I can see.”

Cochran’s supporters also have questioned why the county can’t go ahead and put the recent savings on meals back into the sheriff’s budget.

“I don’t think it’s right to make the sheriff wait for a raise,” said Virginia DeBord, a regular at the commissioners meetings.

 

Don’t ask, don’t tell

By all indications, the Swain County Board of Commissioners has known for quite some time the meal fund was problematic at best.

For starters, their auditor has been raising red flags about it for years.

“I don’t think you could interview anybody who could say ‘No I didn’t know that was happening that way,’” said Eric Bowman, a certified public accountant who prepares the county’s annual audit. “It is one of those things that should have been stopped long ago.”

There was always a gap in the county’s record keeping, since no receipts or invoices were provided by the sheriff documenting the actual cost of the food.

When Bowman first cited the problem in his annual audit years ago, county leaders explained to Bowman things had always been done this way.

“When we first found this way back we said, ‘At the least you’ve got to give the sheriff a 1099 so he can at least report it on his income tax and it shows you aren’t trying to hide anything,’” Bowman said.

The county followed the advice and began providing Ogle with 1099 forms. That makes it difficult for the county to claim it didn’t know Ogle was profiting off the meal deal. On one hand, the county claims it had no had knowledge of the meal fund, yet it provided Ogle with a 1099 to report his profits just in case.

Although Bowman continued to see the meal arrangement as a problem, he quit mentioning it in his audit reports.

“It was almost like we were beating a dead horse,” Bowman said. “Once it was obvious they weren’t going to do anything about it, we just quit as long as everybody knew, the commissioners and the county finance officer and the county manager.”

Bowman said his job was simply to alert the county to any flaws in its accounting methods.

“We weren’t asked to go any further and find out what the actual cost of the meals were,” Bowman said.

When Jim Douthit was elected county commissioner chairman in 1998, he broached the idea of changing the meal set-up. Douthit said the county had no definitive knowledge of whether the sheriff was profiting off the meal allotment or not. Douthit said he was primarily interested in whether the inmates could be fed for less by contracting with the cafeteria at Swain County hospital, for example, or a senior citizen home that had facilities to prepare meals in bulk.

“We were looking at ways to save the taxpayers money,” Douthit said. The idea died without being explored, however.

“There wasn’t enough support by the board members to push it forward,” said Douthit. Douthit was one of two Republicans on the county board at the time.

 

Still trucking

Douthit wasn’t the first commissioner who attempted to end the meal fund. The first documented attempt dates back to the 1970s, but the meal deal survived intact on the other end of a political knockdown drag-out.

In 1978, a Republican-dominated board of commissioners reigned alongside a Democratic sheriff, Dave Wiggins. The commissioners decided they would no longer pay Wiggins a flat fee to feed inmates. Instead, bills for food would be paid directly by the county.

A test of wills ensued. Wiggins continued to buy food like he always had, but the county refused to give him any money for it.

Meanwhile, the county commissioners filed a lawsuit against the sheriff to gain access to his books, which they claim he concealed every year at audit time. The commissioners demanded the sheriff comply with the county’s upcoming annual audit that year, and turn over his books from the previous two years as well. Otherwise “the audit will again be hindered, delayed and impeded by the actions of the sheriff,” the suit claimed.

Wiggins fired back a protest, alleging political retaliation by the commissioners. Wiggins argued the sheriff had always been permitted to keep the surplus from feeding inmates.

“There is no agreement in writing on the subject,” Wiggins’ response claimed, but the arrangement was based on “prior practice and from course of dealing and implication.”

Wiggins’ salary was the lowest in the state at $8,688.

“Unlike many counties in North Carolina where much higher salaries are paid, the fees collected by the sheriff of Swain County are made a part or supplement of the sheriff’s salary and are to be kept and retained by said sheriff as a part of his salary,” Wiggins claimed in his defense. “The sheriff knows of no requirement to account for such fees since the same are, by law, a supplement to his low salary.”

The sheriff gave the county a daily roster of inmates to calculate his stipend.

“He knows of no other or further accounting required of him concerning the feeding of prisoners,” the sheriff’s response stated.

Until recently, the meal allotment was still being paid out in the same way — except the allotment had grown from $5 to $10 per inmate per day.

 

Highly charged

Wiggins claimed the 1978 lawsuit over the meal money was yet another move in a pattern of political retaliation against him. When Wiggins took office, the same commissioners quit paying for deputies and took away all his patrol cars.

“The actions of the Republican majority of the board of commissioners left the sheriff afoot, unarmed and single-handed,” Wiggins claimed in a counter suit against the Republican commissioners.

Not to mention the jail kitchen, which had been wiped clean. There were no utensils, pots, pans, plates, cups — yet Wiggins was supposed to feed the inmates.

Wiggins replaced the kitchenware out of his own pocket, but that didn’t solve his problem of deputies or patrol cars. Citing an “intolerable and dangerous situation,” Wiggins went to Raleigh and asked the General Assembly for help. State lawmakers forced the county to provide two deputies, vehicles for the deputies and the sheriff, and a $600 monthly allowance to operate the cars.

In an interview last week, Wiggins recalled the era as a wild and rocky time.

“I did the best I could with what I had,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins doesn’t think the meal deal should have been ended.

“I think they should give the sheriff so much for food and let him keep what’s left over,” Wiggins said.

It’s something former sheriffs, despite their party, seem to have in common. In Ogle’s final days as sheriff, he questioned the county’s move to abruptly end the meal kickbacks before Cochran took over. Ogle said the commissioners should give Cochran a raise to make up the difference.

“If they want to do that they need to provide a reasonable, decent salary for the sheriff,” Ogle said last fall. “The sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer in the county. He deserves to have a salary that compensates him for that.”

Bill Lewis, a Republican sheriff that served in the 1980s, also spoke out against the commissioners’ decision last fall.

When Lewis was sheriff, he allegedly brought in meat and vegetables raised on his own farm to feed inmates, helping to make the meal arrangement even more lucrative than normal. The county could reach back all the way to Lewis’ term as sheriff with their drag net. There is no statute of limitations on how far back the county can go, according to King.

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