49 Alabama sheriffs being sued for access to public records

Updated: Jan. 9, 2018 at 5:45 PM CST
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(WAFF) - Two civil rights groups are working to learn how sheriffs across the state of Alabama personally profit from funds allocated for feeding people in jail.

Forty-nine Alabama sheriffs are being sued for failure to comply with their open records requests. Both the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and Southern Center for Human Rights are investigating, and as of Monday, have officially filed suit.

WAFF 48 News reached out to Frank Knaack, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Knaack said the two groups are demanding that sheriffs produce records showing whether, and if so, by how much, they've personally profited from taxpayer dollars meant to feed inmates.

According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, "many sheriffs in Alabama contend that a state law authorizing them to personally 'keep and retain' taxpayer dollars provided for feeding peoples in their jails permits them to take any amounts they do not spend on food as personal income."

The human rights organizations also claim two different attorney generals of Alabama have rejected that interpretation of a state law.

Appleseed and the Southern Center tell WAFF they started asking for the records more than six months ago and reached out to sheriffs multiple times with requests.

Today, 49 sheriffs in Alabama have yet to comply with their legal obligations to hand over those records. Right now, it's unknown how much money sheriffs across the state have taken from food funds because most don't report what they take in as income. That's part of what's being investigated currently.

Several sheriffs in the Tennessee Valley are named in the lawsuit, including sheriffs in Lawrence, Franklin, Jackson, Lauderdale, Marshall, Colbert and Cullman counties.

Knaack said this is an issue every Alabamian should be concerned about.

"It is not the privilege of government officials to decide if and when they're going to comply with basic transparency requirements," Knaack said. "If we don't have access to these records or any information that's available under FOIA, we lack the ability to hold our government accountable and I think that's something all Alabamians should be concerned about."

He said additionally, this is about basic human dignity and human rights. Knack said the fact that there are sheriffs allegedly putting personal profit over providing basic needs for people under their care is concerning.

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