State audit of Sheriff's Office reports improper use of funds
by Patrick McCreless
A state audit published Friday reports the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office improperly bought equipment and loaned money to a nonprofit and failed to provide proper records for its jail inmate store.

According to the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts audit, which reviewed the Sheriff’s Office's finances between June 1, 2009, and May 31, 2012, Sheriff Larry Amerson entered into several contracts for purchases without legal authority. The audit states Amerson loaned, without legal authority, a total of $54,400 to Family Links — a local nonprofit that counsels juvenile offenders — which was subsequently repaid.

The audit also states that there was insufficient record-keeping of accounts in the Sheriff's Office jail store, which inmates use to purchase items such as snacks and undergarments.

The audit did not specify what contracts Amerson allegedly entered into illegally or why he loaned money to Family Links. Attempts to reach a representative from the Examiners of Public Accounts for comment on the audit were unsuccessful Friday.

Amerson said the contracts were for computer equipment for several patrol vehicles. Amerson disagreed with the audit, saying he purchased the equipment legally with money from his law enforcement fund.

"There is always a challenge with this ... the law in Alabama says a sheriff cannot obligate general fund money, it has to be obligated by the county commission," Amerson said. "But if I buy a car and use the law enforcement fund, then I'm not obligating general fund money."

Section 45-8-232 of the Alabama Code establishes a law enforcement fund for the Calhoun County sheriff that is funded by the Sheriff Office's jail store and telephone system account. The law states that money, "shall be expended at the discretion of the sheriff for law enforcement purposes in Calhoun County."

However, the audit states that according to the Alabama Code's general provisions of the operation of the office of sheriff, a sheriff must have legal authority from the county commission before entering into any contracts.

"The only entity in the county that has contract authority is the Calhoun County Commission," said Ken Joiner, Calhoun County administrator. "No other entity has that authority to deal with county funds except the commission."

Amerson said he was unaware that he could not loan money to a nonprofit when he made the loan to Family Links. Amerson said his office has given discretionary money to Family Links for years. Amerson said Family Links lost some grant funding in recent years and he started loaning the group money to help cover its payroll.

"The auditor said you're not supposed to do that ... you're not supposed to treat it as a loan and are not supposed to expect repayment," Amerson said. "We've adjusted our practice on that ... but I believe keeping the doors open was the right thing to do."

Attempts to reach Family Links Friday for comment were unsuccessful.

Amerson said the jail store issues were due to the company contracted to manage the system, Canteen Systems. Amerson said his office switched to the company a couple years ago and its system did not provide the proper records the auditors required.

"We've now fixed that," Amerson said. "The records are there."

Amerson said he does not take audits lightly.

"The law requires we be audited, we're aware that we'll be audited and we take the account of public money very seriously," he said.

Brian McVeigh, Calhoun County district attorney, said all audits of county governmental bodies are sent to his office for review.

"If there is an error noted in the audit, an investigation is done and if criminal activity is found, it is brought before a grand jury," McVeigh said.

McVeigh said Friday afternoon that he had yet to see the audit of the Sheriff's Office.

John Ellis, an adjunct instructor of political science at Jacksonville State University who teaches about state and local government, said financial problems with sheriff's offices around the state crop up from time to time due mainly to how Alabama law is written and their wide range of responsibilities.

"Sheriffs in general are given wide authority ... they are one of the main elected officials in each county and can only be arrested by the county coroner," Eliis said. "They do have their own funds, but the majority of their funding has to go through the county commission. But in practice, because they have such a wide administration, they are given a lot of latitude."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

© 2013