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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”