Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin used $150,000 from prisoner food budget to invest in failed car dealership

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin will soon have to appear in federal court – but not Thursday as originally scheduled -- to address claims she violated a federal court order by taking $150,000 from the jail food budget and using it to invest in a now-bankrupt car dealership.

Lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights says Franklin needs to show why she is not in contempt of court for violating of an explicit judge’s order which dates back to 2009. That court order says all local, state and federal money allocated for Morgan County prisoner meals -- can only be used for prisoner meals.

The two sides asked the court Tuesday to continue the hearing to a later date. The court agreed, but a new date hasn’t been set as of Wednesday afternoon.

The plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to make Franklin, who’s been sheriff since 2011, prove why she shouldn’t be held in contempt for withdrawing and the jail food money and also for not providing financial records on the use of the money.

The federal scrutiny of the Morgan County Jail dates back more than a decade to a prisoner class-action lawsuit over jail conditions.

The order at issue in 2009 followed the court’s finding that then-Sheriff Greg Bartlett was in contempt for failing to provide nutritionally-adequate meals to inmates, though he had the money in his budget to do so. The court found that because Alabama law allows sheriff’s to retain surplus money from their inmate food budgets, Bartlett had a financial incentive not to spend more money on inmate food.

Then-U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon ordered Bartlett jailed for contempt and crafted an order to address concerns over prisoner diets.

Among the steps he ordered was that all monies allocated for food had to be spent on food.

The plaintiff’s lawyers filed the contempt complaint last month.

Franklin’s lawyers responded Friday.

They admit in court filings that Franklin did take $160,000 out of the food budget in June 2015, put it in a separate account, then a few days later invested $150,000 in a car business – Performance Auto Sales – which declared bankruptcy last year.

But her lawyers argue the 2009 order regarding use of food money only applied to Bartlett and was related to his contempt proceeding. The filing contends that federal law requires judges to offer narrowly tailored rulings to address state prison and local jail issues.

The filing also argues that Franklin has paid $150,000 of money back to the account she created in late December, and the last $5,000 was returned last month. They also argue Alabama law still allows sheriffs to pocket any surplus food costs from their budgets.

In a response to that filing Wednesday, the plaintiff’s lawyers argue that Franklin should have gone to court and challenged the ruling, not simply taken the money.

“If the Sheriff believed that the Court’s 2009 order was flawed, the appropriate course of action would have been to seek clarification, modification, or termination of the order,” they argue. “The Sheriff is not entitled simply to ignore a federal court order, pocketing money that the Court clearly and unequivocally forbade the Sheriff from spending on anything but ‘the feeding of inmates.’”