Government SPLOST 7 | | | Editor

Richmond County Sheriff's Office benevolent fund violates law

Saturday, June 8, 2013 8:07 PM
Last updated Sunday, June 9, 2013 2:19 AM
  • Follow Government

For decades, Richmond County sheriffs have collected and spent thousands of dollars of public money in a way that violates state law, according to an investigation by The Augusta Chronicle.

Back | Next
A Richmond County sheriff's officer directs traffic for a funeral leaving Chance & Hydrick Funeral Home. Funeral homes pay the sheriff's office $25 for escorts. The fees are deposited into the sheriff's benevolent fund.  MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF
A Richmond County sheriff's officer directs traffic for a funeral leaving Chance & Hydrick Funeral Home. Funeral homes pay the sheriff's office $25 for escorts. The fees are deposited into the sheriff's benevolent fund.

It’s called the sheriff’s benevolent fund, but most of it is funded by unauthorized fees billed for deputies’ funeral escorts and goes unscrutinized by county officials or state auditors. The fees and expenses run into the thousands each year.

Last year, for example, Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength spent more than $2,000 sponsoring golf tournaments, Little League baseball, charity softball teams and a bass tournament. He spent $3,000 on watches for retirees, $4,000 on flowers for the sick and grieving and more than $12,000 on Christmas parties for his officers and staff.

It wasn’t a secret, but it also wasn’t approved by the Augusta Commis­sion.

By most accounts, the fee has been around since the late 1970s, and the fund has been used to benefit sheriff’s deputies and the community, but both its existence and its source of revenue appear to break the very law the sheriff is sworn to uphold.

The fee is a nominal $25 charge, paid by funeral homes in checks made out to the sheriff’s office. Those fees add up, averaging more than $18,000 per year. All that money ends up in an unaudited Wells Fargo checking account the sheriff can use at his discretion.

An analysis of more than five years of sheriff’s financial records shows that fees for funeral escorts by on-duty deputies have generated almost $100,000 since January 2008. None of the money was accounted for by the county’s Finance Department or included in county financial statements, as required by state law. The documents were obtained through an open-records request to Sheriff Richard Round­tree, who said no records were available before 2008.

Georgia State Auditor Greg Griffin, while declining to comment on the Rich­mond County situation specifically, said in general that if public funds are generated or used, state law is very specific about how such money should be handled.

Griffin said the law requires all public revenue to be accounted for and reflected in the county’s financial statements, and presented for audits.

“In general, compliance with state law requires inclusion of all funds and transactions in the financial statements of the local government, which are presented for an annual audit,” he said. “This
supports the notion of clear accountability and transparency of the sources and uses of public funds.

“That is the standard,” he said.

Clint Mueller, the legislative director for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, said the money should be considered county revenue and therefore subject to public scrutiny in the county budget.

“All the funds the sheriff collects should be audited and disclosed,” he said. “That money should flow back through the county
general fund and be appropriated to the budget by the county commission.”

Richmond County Finance Di­rec­tor Donna Williams said she had no information about the fund because her office does not see the checks or account for any of the revenue generated by the funeral escorts.

“The cash account known as the benevolent fund is not under control of Richmond County and as such is not subject to audit procedures,” she said.

Informal agreement

Strength said the escort fees were public funds, but that the arrangement to keep them in the benevolent fund was something worked out between the sheriff and the commission long before his administration.

According to news accounts, the benevolent fund likely had its origin under Sheriff George Mutimer, who held office from 1962 to 1967. In the beginning, money for the fund came from vending machines in the Richmond County jail. Its intent was to provide a source of money for “unforeseen expenses” for deputies and to buy flowers for the ill or deceased.

Now, most of the money deposited in the account comes from the work of on-duty deputies. It’s still used for flowers and for deputies having financial trouble, but most of the money is spent on Christmas parties, retirement events, sponsorships and other purposes.

Strength said that in the early 1970s, when Bill Anderson was sheriff, the fees charged for funeral escorts went directly to the deputies on the detail. He said that arrangement stopped a few years later, probably during the administration of Sheriff James Beck, from 1977 to 1980.

“That changed and the money went into the sheriff’s benevolent fund,” he said. “It was set up with the commission. That was basically what was done back then.”

Strength said he’s fairly certain there was never any formal vote or ordinance authorizing the fee or the fund. It was an informal agreement between elected officials, he said.

That appears to be the case.

A search of county records did not turn up an ordinance authorizing the fee or the benevolent fund. City attorney Andrew MacKenzie said he wasn’t aware of any such legal arrangement.

The absence of an ordinance or vote, however, casts doubt on the legality of the situation.

Practice elsewhere

Sheriff Howard Sills, the president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Asso­ciation, said sheriffs are limited by state law in what fees they can collect.

“The law doesn’t allow me to charge for such services,” said Sills, who is sheriff of Putnam County.

Most of the fees authorized by state law have to do with serving warrants, delivering witnesses and other functions related to county courts. Sills said that if a fee isn’t in the state law, it must be authorized by a local ordinance.

“Because absent of that, quite candidly I don’t think the sheriff can charge for it,” he said. “It’s part of the sheriff’s oath that I shall take only my lawful fees.”

An informal survey of other sheriff’s departments in Georgia found no similar fees or unaudited funds. Sheriffs in Columbia, McDuffie, Lincoln, Jefferson and Burke counties said they did not charge funeral homes for providing escorts. Neither do sheriff’s departments in Bibb or Chatham counties.

Sills said his deputies provide funeral escorts at no charge. He said any fees he gets for services are turned over to the county to be accounted for and audited.

“I have no unaudited accounts,” he said. “None, period.”

Strength said he was never aware that the fee or the fund violated state law. The issue was never raised.

“I have never known of a problem during my 12 years as sheriff or in my 36 years on the force,” he said. “It has never created a problem. I don’t believe there is a problem now.”

He was certain that under his administration the fund was handled aboveboard and that all the money was tracked, down to every deposit and expense.

“If anybody ever looked into it, you would see that every single nickel was accounted for,” Strength said.

Some differences

The numbers, however, don’t add up.

Over the 64-month period since January 2008, more than $169,000 was deposited in the benevolent fund, about $22,000 of that coming in 2013, according to copies of check registers and bank statements provided to the newspaper. Copies of the actual checks deposited during that period, however, only add up to about $141,000, leaving a gap of more than $27,000 that no one can explain.

There are other problems with the books during Strength’s administration. For example, in January 2012, the account balance was suddenly adjusted to reflect a $6,000 increase, with no corresponding deposit. It doesn’t appear money is missing; rather, more money exists in the fund than the deposits account for.

There are other problems associated with deposits and expenses related to fundraising and charity events.

Beginning in February 2012, money began to pour into the benevolent fund from fundraisers associated with the J.D. Paugh Memorial Fund, set up to honor the memory of the Richmond County deputy who was slain in the line of duty in October 2011.

The money was meant to fund a trip to Washington for officers and family to participate in the 31st annual National Peace Officers’ Me­morial Service as part of National Po­lice Week in May 2012.

According to sheriff’s records, about $9,700 was deposited in the benevolent fund from donations toward the trip. But according to checks written from the account, only about $6,200 was spent on the trip. That leaves about $3,500 not used for the intended purpose.

Paugh’s mother, Anita Paugh, who donated $200 to fund the trip, said she was not aware there were excess funds.

“I don’t know if there was any money that was left or not,” she said.

When originally asked, Strength said no money associated with the Paugh fundraisers was deposited in the benevolent fund. Later, he said he wasn’t aware the account was used for that purpose. He
said there wasn’t a real accounting method for tracking donations and their uses.

Nonprofit in works

Roundtree said he wasn’t aware the account was violating the law, but he cited the fundraising money as an example of why he plans to end the current practice.

Roundtree said he is creating a nonprofit corporation that will handle all donations and fundraising proceeds currently deposited in the benevolent fund. As a
nonprofit, it will be required to file yearly financial disclosures with the IRS.

“That’s why I’m in the process of putting that in place,” he said. “This is the system I’m trying to change.”

As soon as the nonprofit is established, he said he also will stop accepting checks from funeral homes. Instead, those fees will be sent to the county finance office. He said he will seek an opinion from the county attorney on whether the fees should be authorized by the commission.

That could happen soon. Round­tree said he expects to have a federal tax ID number for the nonprofit no later than Monday.

Though there is no indication from sheriff’s records that money in the benevolent account was ever used to benefit the sheriff directly, some say having a pool of public money to be doled out at the discretion of an elected official is questionable in itself.

Over a five-year period, Strength made donations from the fund to churches and community organizations totaling more than $8,000. He also spent more than $5,000 sponsoring charity golf events.

Capt. Steve Morris of the Co­lum­bia County Sheriff’s Office said Sheriff Clay Whittle does not have a similar fund and does not make any donations from department money. Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey said that as an elected official, he also is approached by a lot of community groups seeking donations and sponsorships, but he can’t dip into his budget for that.

“I tell them the sheriff’s department does not have an account,” Coursey said. “This comes out of Greg Coursey’s personal account. That’s out of my pocket.”

The benevolent fund also receives donations from companies and private individuals that aren’t made public the way campaign contributions are. Wal-Mart was by far the biggest contributor, donating $4,750 during the period records were available.

In another example from Jan­uary, the Builders Political Action of the CSRA made a $2,500 donation to the fund.

William Perry, with Common Cause, a public watchdog group, said such funds give the appearance of impropriety.

“That seems very out of the ordinary,” Perry said. “Political action committees are obviously meant to influence elections and politicians. Rarely does somebody give something from a PAC unless they intend to influence somebody somewhere.”

Strength said neither he nor his predecessor, Sheriff Charles Webster, had any serious political rivals to challenge them in an election, so having a ready source of money to use outside of campaign contributions was never questioned.

He admitted, however, there were few safeguards in place to prevent the misuse of such funds.

“If somebody wanted to be dishonest, they could do it,” he said.

Strength said if the collection and use of funeral escort fees violates state law, the practice should be re-examined or ended.

“Technically, if it is not legal, there should be changes made,” he said. “If we had known about it, absolutely, we would have addressed it.”

What’s ahead

Several Augusta commissioners said it is time to take a look at the practice and determine whether it should continue.

Marion Williams, who sits on the commission’s Finance Committee, said the escorts are a necessary service, but if the fee isn’t legal it should be corrected.

“If it is against that law we need to pass a law that makes it legal,” he said, adding that the funds should be accounted for by the county finance department.

Commissioners Wayne Guilfoyle and Grady Smith agree. Both suggested the issue should be examined at an upcoming commission committee meeting. Guilfoyle is the chairman of the Finance Committee, and Smith is the chairman of the Pub­lic Service Committee. Smith said the commission could formally institute a fee or end it altogether.

“I think that any money that goes to the sheriff, I don’t care who the sheriff is, if money goes to the sheriff it ought to be audited,” Smith said. “The question is, who is watching the money?”


The Augusta Chronicle examined more than 1,000 pages of financial records related to the Richmond County Sheriff’s Benevolent Fund covering the period from January 2008 through April. The total deposits during that period amount to more than $173,000. More than $98,000 of that amount came from fees charged for funeral procession escorts.

Christmas parties$51,344
Fundraising events$34,633
Retirement events$10,609
Sponsorships and ads$9,595
Golf sponsorships$5,885
Office expenses$5,583
Assistance to deputies$3,881
Chaplain phone bills$3,479
Thomas Poteet & Sons$14,075
Elliott & Sons$13,850
Chance & Hydrick$9,350
W.H. Mays$9,125
C.A. Reid$4,775
Kinsey & Walton$2,076

Deposits recorded in bank statements and check registers over the 64-month period examined totaled more than $169,000. However, copies of actual checks, totaled below, account for only about $141,000.


* Some funeral home payments from 2007 were deposited in 2008

** through April 2013

Comments (36) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
Riverman1 06/08/13 - 08:56 pm
This Is Not Azziz

Scrutinizing Dr. Azziz was a good thing. With our Sheriff, not so much…unless things get out of line. With this one, we understand and there's not much here...or in the past with Strength.

thauch12 06/08/13 - 08:53 pm
An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

This is rather disturbing and makes the sheriff's office look like a bunch of crooks. After all, it basically amounts to extorting funeral homes to pay a fee (however nominal it may be) in order to get police escorts for the dead...which by the way is mainly used to fund RCSO parties and gifts. Too bad I can't do something like this to fund my parties!

dstewartsr 06/08/13 - 09:51 pm
The cops have a slush fund?

Shocking. Shady money dealings by the cops?

(Spoiler alert: There's gambling at Rick's American Cafe!)

Dixieman 06/08/13 - 10:06 pm
REALLY slow news day

C'mon, AC, go investigate Riverkeepers or Compass Academy where really serious bad stuff is going down. This is ridiculous.

tl-bro 06/08/13 - 10:09 pm
Come on...

This is a "no harm,no foul" issue. $25 per funeral is negligible, and the Sheriff's office appears to be doing good with the money. Lay off and focus on real govt waste elsewhere.

itsanotherday1 06/08/13 - 10:34 pm
No harm no foul.

I wouldn't get all in a dither about what has happened , as it seems the money was applied with good intentions according to the records available.

However, the rules are the rules and the law is the law. Going forward, adhere to it.

itsanotherday1 06/08/13 - 10:36 pm

Ti-bro, I didn't read all of the posts before submitting my own. Didn't mean to copy you.

fedex227 06/08/13 - 11:20 pm
"For decades, ...

Richmond County sheriffs have collected and spent thousands of dollars of public money in a way that violates state law, according to an investigation by The Augusta Chronicle ... the $25 charge paid by funeral homes ... has been around since the late 1970s."

Well done Augusta Chronicle ... I guess discovering maleficence while it has been going on for over 40 years is better than not discovering it at all - btw, was one of the awards you guys won recently in the 'investigative journalism' catergory?

fedex227 06/08/13 - 11:24 pm
Also ...

exactly what prompted this recent investigation? Could it have been the last election by any chance?

rational thought trumps emotion
rational thought trumps emotion 06/08/13 - 11:42 pm
Change It

So, after 20 years, the AC figures this out quickly under a new administration. Either way, if it is wrong then fix it. Sheriff Roundtree appears to already be doing that, which is a good thing. Private Funeral homes should be charged for escorts as this should not be paid by the taxpayers and as Roundtree stated, the money will soon be going directly to the county which in turn should come back to the Sheriff's Office fuel budget. $25.00 doesn't even cover the costs so you can bet once this is all said and done that fee is going up. As for how the money has been spent, all of it seems very appropriate as the Sheriff certainly needs to be able to reward deputies and show his appreciation through a yearly awards banquet/Christmas party, awards, plaques, etc. and this is better than using tax money.

So, if all it takes is the county commission to pass a law then pass it and make the fund open for public viewing, which apparently Roundtree already does anyway.

GiantsAllDay 06/09/13 - 12:19 am
Crawford just won an award

Crawford just won an award for investigative reporting. I say let him run with this. At the very least, anyone in charge of government funds will take notice and maybe will start to fly right. If Crawford will go after a well liked ex sheriff, he'll go after anyone. Keep it up!!

Austin Rhodes
Austin Rhodes 06/09/13 - 01:05 am
Great work Steve Crawford!

...and as far as why we are just reading about this...probably because it has been going on for DECADES and I, for one, always assumed there had been enabling legislation/ordinances passed to allow it.

This amounts to little more than "petty cash" for a dept. the size of the RCSO. 25 bucks for the escort is small change...and a "final tribute" to the deceased is certainly within the realm of reasonable public service for the county's law enforcement officers.

This is kinda like finding out the guy that married your grandparents was not really a minister. A pretty big boo-boo to be sure, but one that was seemingly made with the best of intentions.

No harm, no foul...but get it corrected and on the books. Other than documenting the accounts officially, I would pass an ordinance that allows the same exact system to remain in place.

Austin Rhodes
Austin Rhodes 06/09/13 - 01:08 am
WAY more than 20 years...

...if this was going on back to George Mutimer...that takes it back to the 60's at least.


myfather15 06/09/13 - 05:51 am
First of all; anyone who

First of all; anyone who considers the "Whole" Sheriff's Office crooks because of this incident; is a moron!! Stop sterotyping; putting everyone in the same category because of the behavior of a VERY few. I promise you; no matter who made the final decision; road deputies had NOTHING to do with ANY decisions about fees.

ColdBeerBoiledPeanuts 06/09/13 - 06:10 am
Fee Increase

I predict that if the commission approves a local ordinance this funeral fee will increase drastically and it will never make it back to this fund!! $25 for up to 6 deputies to escort funerals, for some that goes from the home to the church then the cemetery which can tie up deputies for hours. This has been going on so long, no one thought to question the practice. Now if the commission decides to increase the fee, how many unescorted funerals will you see, and think about the traffic issues that can create. Also, in case you haven't noticed, the cities that Obama visits are now billing for the additional services that he requires. As for the Governor, the Georgia State Patrol is used.

myfather15 06/09/13 - 06:32 am
2nd: You wanna talk about

2nd: You wanna talk about extorting money? What about all the money the Funeral homes are extorting from people by taking advantage of their emotions? The funeral systems have one of the highest markups of prices of any business in the Country. People certainly have emotions running high and want the best for their loved one who have passed; and funeral systems are trained on how to take full advantage of that.

Are you goig to say, with all the money funeral homes are making; that $25 dollars for 4 or 5 deputies to escort a funeral and block intersections, is too high? Pleeeeaaaase!!

Now, before somone hits on the point that we are serving the public (which is true); is it just wrong to charge a fee? I have absolutely ZERO problem with a Sheriff's Office charging a fee or NOT charging a fee. I think it's a service that certainly could be provided for free; but I also KNOW the funeral homes are making LOTS of money and $25 dollars isn't hurthing them a ounce. What's the big deal?

Bodhisattva 06/09/13 - 07:21 am
So the practice has been

So the practice has been going on at least since the 1970's, possibly longer. The Chronicle has been around under one name or another since 1785, since 1945 under the current owners, and in 2013 they get around to investigating the Sheriff's Dept.? What could have changed?

nocnoc 06/09/13 - 09:41 am
But I can't get upset on this

But I can't get upset on this one.
updated to correct oversight (the missing $27,000)

1st of all Steve Crawford
Last updated Sunday, June 9, 2013 2:19 AM
did a great job of Research for this investigative report.

Yes I agree RCSO needs to adjust the practice and follow state guidelines that have come in to effect after it was started. It is the law and the law must above all obey the law.

But step back and look at the better picture.
We have about 300 deputies in the RCSO and we are talking over a 274 Week period. The math works out to about $173K / 274week = $63.14 about a week OR less than $10.00 a day.

So it was no slush fund/black bag operation.

Having attended a funeral recently, and witnessed the Law Enforcement Officers escort dodging traffic, our LEO's racing ahead to stand in an intersection to stop traffic. 1 LEO narrowly avoiding becoming a skid mark in the road with some good moves. Just doing this to allow the funeral procession to continue as a whole.

My family gladly paid the trivial amount, what was the least priced item on our burial bill.

But from what I am reading so far in the article, I see no conspiracy to abuse the funds. In fact looking over the presented numbers, this restrictively used miscellaneous fund likely saved the Taxpayers $$$$ and a lot of needless paperwork and Political hot air by some downtown.

The only Items that are flags are:

The approximate dates of the Missing $27,000 needs to be determined.

More detail on WHO received the Sponsorships,

and details on the Parties (like when and where were the parties held?)

On these items, I would like to see deeper details.

But in the case of the $27,000.00, we will likely see that answer about the same time we learn about other ARC departments missing funds.

Mr. Crawford,
Great piece of Investigative Forensic Accounting journalism & research work.

justthefacts 06/09/13 - 07:42 am
Lame comment

This doesn't impliment Roundtree. If anything it throws a bad light on the previous sheriffs, certainly not the present one. Indications are, Roundtree hasn't spent a dime of it and is, in fact eliminating the practice.
I think faithson would characterize comments accusing the AC of racism in this case as "projecting".

seenitB4 06/09/13 - 07:47 am
Watch the fees go up now

Just like coldbeer said....this is a small fee for the services....& it is needed by funerals......don't we have some real problems to get all fussied up about....
Let me see now....I would pay $25 for 4 to 5 policemen to direct traffic at a funeral of a loved one....not have to worry about wrecks on that already sad day.....geeez....some things you just need to leave it be....kinda strange though....multi million dollar contracts don't get this scrutiny.

Riverman1 06/09/13 - 07:58 am
I thought every police

I thought every police jurisdiction in Georgia and South Carolina did this and was paid. Other states, probably also. This is simply not an issue.

wgcopeland 06/09/13 - 08:15 am
Let's see

Let's see,what could have prompted this investigation?,..Why now,I mean what is different about this sheriff than ones in the past???...ummm,..can't pinpoint anything in particular....

soapy_725 06/09/13 - 08:57 am
The fee will double and the

service will be cut in half.

GA Code: Anodized; Section 3(QD); Funeral Processions

a)Funeral processions will be limited to odd/even days based on the deceased's birthday.

b)The number of vehicles included in the escort service will be limited to twelve, including the hearse.

c)ALL processional vehicles will have a large magnetic sign on the hood stating they are part of a FUNERAL. (A five dollar refundable rental)

d)ALL processional vehicles will pass a state safety and operation audit. (One time or lifetime permits will be available at additional cost)

e)ALL operators of processional vehicles shall be current Georgia Driver License holders with proof of current Liability Insurance.

f)Smoking of any substance is strictly prohibited.

g)Fort Gordon will be responsible for the vehicle safety and operational test requirements {see Section XII; sub section 4(QD)}. And the attachment of appropriate stickers. One time and lifetime.

h)The funeral homes involved will be required to collect ALL fees, associated taxes and forward same to the county sheriff's benevolent fund.

...point to ponder
...point to ponder 06/09/13 - 08:46 am
No fees...

NO other Sheriff's department has this fee for service or this type of fund.
Having one seems not to be legal.
Tipping the funeral escorts is fine BUT do they now get paid anything or were all funds passed on the Fund?

Pops 06/09/13 - 08:57 am
I think it

is highly likely that the current sheriff tipped off the newspaper about the practice. He has already been taking steps to get it legal. Makes him look like he's really on the ball. After all he has had a history of attempting to use the newspaper to further his career.

...point to ponder
...point to ponder 06/09/13 - 09:01 am
Why make it legal?

If the fees were started in the first place under cloudy party politics THEN why perpetuate it?

oldredneckman96 06/09/13 - 10:32 am

OK let the funeral home pay the real cost of escorts!

GiantsAllDay 06/09/13 - 10:50 am
MyFather15 is spot on re: the

MyFather15 is spot on re: the funeral industry. When I was in junior high school I read "The High Cost of Dying", by Ruth Harmer. It was written in the 60's and is even more relevant today.

daphne3520 06/09/13 - 11:05 am
Tep, Strength was a "good ol boy"

“I have never known of a problem during my 12 years as sheriff or in my 36 years on the force,” he said. “It has never created a problem. I don’t believe there is a problem now.”

NO Sheriff is above the law, Ronnie!!!!!!!

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 06/09/13 - 11:22 am
The American Way of Death

Another great book showing the seamy side of the funeral industry is The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford. Here is a Wikipedia link to the author's bio:

Jessica Mitford

Back to Top
Search Augusta jobs
Top headlines
Early voting in Augusta-area shows increase
Area early voting numbers are dwarfing turnout four years ago, particularly in Republican-leaning Columbia County, and forecast apossible record voting year for the Augusta area.