Some local Republicans got their brief fling with fame during Donald Trump’s campaign rally Monday in Asheville.
A lawsuit waged by Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran against the county was shot down in court this week.
Cochran accused commissioners of cutting his pay in 2006 as a form of partisan retribution. State statute protects sheriffs from politically motivated pay cuts, making it illegal for county commissioners to reduce the sheriff’s compensation or allowances following the outcome of an election.
In this case, Cochran argued the all-Democratic board of commissioners retaliated against him after he narrowly beat out a long-time Democratic sheriff.
However, Cochran’s civil suit was thrown out by Judge Allan Thornburg this week following a hearing on Jan. 24. Cochran’s attorney David Sawyer said they plan to appeal the decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
The judge did not stipulate why he was dismissing the case, so it’s unclear which of the many defenses put forward by the county was the winning one.
One interesting argument in the case centered around whether county commissioners indeed reduced Cochran’s compensation as he claimed. While it seems like a clear-cut matter — either they cut his pay or they didn’t — it gets a little complicated.
Following an election upset by Cochran in 2006, commissioners put an end to a long-standing slush fund enjoyed by prior sheriffs. Prior sheriffs were paid a flat rate to feed jail inmates and could keep the surplus to use as they pleased, whether it was pocketing the difference or using it to subsidize operations around their office.
When making his case that the lost meal money equated to lost pay, Cochran needed to prove that previous sheriffs made a profit on the meal deal and by how much.
“The problem is we don’t know what that number is,” said Mark Melrose of Melrose, Seago and Lay, who represented the county in the suit.
Melrose said any dollar amount would be “highly speculative.”
The county never made prior sheriffs document what they were actually spending on inmates’ food, but instead dolled out a lump sum with no questions asked.
The lack of records means Cochran could not conclusively show how much previous sheriffs made on the meal deal, and thus how much he supposedly lost when it was taken away.
The previous sheriff got $10 per inmate per day. Sawyer said Cochran has complete records of his cost to feed inmates, so while the surplus made by past sheriffs remains a mystery, it would be easy to calculate what Cochran was due if the old formula was still in effect.
The state statute not only bars commissioners from cutting the sheriff’s pay, but also for reducing his “allowances.” Cochran and the county sparred over whether the inmate meal fund qualified as an “allowance.”
“His contention was that it was an allowance. Our argument was that it was a reimbursement for expenditures,” said Melrose.
Rather than paying out a lump sum, the county now reimburses the sheriff for actual food costs at the jail — but it still counts as a reimbursement, not an allowance, Melrose said.
In a dual claim, Cochran sued the county for breach of contract.
“Cochran argued there was an implied contract based on the county’s dealing with prior sheriffs, but you can’t piggy back on top of that,” Melrose said.
The county commissioners never “implied” they would continue funding inmate meals the same way they had with prior sheriffs. In fact, government entities legally can’t make verbal promises to do business with someone, Melrose said, but must do business in the open through written public contracts.
The county argued that it had sovereign immunity in this case, meaning it could not be sued for such things. Sawyer said granting the county sovereign immunity in this case renders the state statute moot.
“If soveriegn immunity applies here, it is questionable whether there is any mechanism to enforce that statute,” Sawyer said. “We feel it is an important issue for the Court of Appeals to look at.”
But the county did not hang its hat on that defense alone, and it is ultimately not known whether it was the deciding factor for the judge.
“In order to defend the county, we had to recreate all the events of the food being supplied to the inmates for a long time to see what was the practice, what was paid, how was it paid, was there a profit. It was very fact intensive,” Melrose said.
Mike McConnell, an attorney with the same firm as Melrose, was the primary lawyer for Swain County in the case.
Auditors had repeatedly warned the county the meal deal wasn’t exactly kosher and should be ended, but it wasn’t until Cochran came into office that commissioners heeded the advice. The county claimed it was simply time to embrace a new, better way of doing business.
At the time, Cochran asked commissioners for a salary increase if they were going to cut out the meal deal.
When Cochran filed the suit he was one of the lowest paid sheriffs in the state with a salary of just $38,000. He’s gotten incremental raises from commissioners since then, bringing his salary to $47,000, but he is still one of the lowest — if not the lowest — paid sheriffs in the state. His salary is the lowest according to a list of sheriff salaries put out by the UNC School of Government, but it shows no data for a few counties. Only two other counties showed sheriff salaries of less than $50,000.
In the end, the county may have been better off giving Cochran more of a raise to offset the loss of the meal deal rather than paying the costs of the lawsuit. County Manager Kevin King said he did not know how much the county had spent in legal costs defending the suit so far.
“To be honest I have not received any bills yet,” said King.
However, Melrose said the county has been billed regularly for work in the suit since 2008.
“There has been a good bit of billing,” Melrose said. “There have been three or four depositions and court hearings and time spent preparing the case. The legal arguments took a lot of time and research.”
King did not return subsequent messages and emails again requesting the cost of the lawsuit to the county. The county hopes to be reimbursed for court costs, but those amount to less than $1,000, a small sum compared to the legal fees for the attorneys.
“The sheriff is willing to talk with the county at any time and would like to resolve this in amicable but if not the appeal is the only other route that we have,” Sawyer said.
When asked whether the county was pleased the suit was dismissed, King directed questions about the lawsuit to county commissioners. Commissioner Chairman Phil Carson did not return a message.
In Swain County, incumbent Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran successfully fended off challenger John Ensley.
Cochran has faced several controversies in the preceding four-year term, his first in law enforcement. He has weathered well-publicized rows with county commissioners, including a discrimination lawsuit against them and disagreements about deputy pay, overtime and other budgetary woes. The department under Cochran has also seen the escape of an accused murderer from its new, still half-empty jail — aided by a detention officer — and the misuse of official credit cards by yet another detention officer.
Democrat Ensley, a local businessman with only a tad more law enforcement experience than Cochran, felled other primary contenders with ease but eeked out little more than a third of the final vote tally. Throughout his campaign, he promised to use his prowess as a salesman to entice federal, state and other local prisoners to fill the costly jail, a feat Cochran has, as yet, failed to perform.
Cochran won all five of the county’s precincts, taking more than 60 percent of the vote in four districts and leading one of those by 71 percent. He will now enter another four-year term, where he will be working with the recently-elected, all-Democrat county commission.
Curtis Cochran (R) 2,857
John Ensley (D) 1,706
On Tuesday (June 22), Swain County voters will decide which Democrat will face Republican Curtis Cochran in the hotly contested sheriff’s race this fall.
Though candidate John Ensley won the primary with an impressive 28 percent of the vote — despite competing with seven other candidates — it was not the 40 percent he needed to avoid a runoff election
Runner-up Mitchell Jenkins, who won 285 votes compared to Ensley’s 513, called for a second round.
Whoever wins the second primary will face Sheriff Cochran, who has held the seat for four years. In the Republican primary this year, Cochran won in a landslide with 525 votes, compared to his lone competitor Wayne Dover’s 156 votes.
With the sheriff’s race the most heated election in the county, candidates were lining up and campaigning more than a year before the actual primary.
In his campaign, Ensley emphasizes community involvement with the sheriff’s office, more education for officers, outreach programs in the school system and better networking with surrounding counties.
Ensley, 42, is the owner of Yellow Rose Realty but also a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer. He has worked as a jailer in Florida and worked for the Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years.
Jenkins, 52, is a self-employed logger with nine years of law enforcement experience, including eight years as chief deputy in Swain County and one year in the Bryson City Police Department.
Jenkins is running because he’d like to establish a better working relationship between the sheriff’s office and the public. Jenkins said he’d also respect the confidentiality of those who phone in tips to the sheriff’s office.
Early voting will take place until Saturday, June 19. To find out more, contact the Board of Elections.
Candidate Mitchell Jenkins decided last week to revive arguably the most heated race in Swain County for one more round.
After coming in second in the Democratic primary for sheriff, Jenkins has called for a runoff against top vote-getter John Ensley.
Competing with a whopping seven other candidates, Ensley’s 28 percent of the vote was impressive, but insufficient to secure his win. A runoff can be held whenever the winner fails to get 40 percent of the vote.
Jenkins said he didn’t like the idea of a runoff from the get-go, but he received calls from more than 50 people, urging him to fight on.
“They said ‘You can’t back out now, you still have a chance of winning this thing,’” said Jenkins. “They more or less put me on the spot.”
Though Jenkins trailed behind Ensley’s 513 votes with 285 votes of his own, he expects that margin to be a whole lot closer this time around.
Ensley said he is disappointed about starting all over again but acknowledged Jenkins’ full right to call for a runoff.
“We’re definitely prepared to go the distance,” Ensley said. “I had hoped that our party would unite, that we could look towards the fall.”
Whoever wins will face Sheriff Curtis Cochran, a Republican who has held the seat for four years. In the Republican primary this year, Cochran won in a landslide with 525 votes, compared to his lone competitor Wayne Dover’s 156.
Ensley said it’s a shame the runoff election would cost county taxpayers, who will foot the bill for printing the ballots and manning the polls.
But in this case, the county was already planning a runoff between Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate when Jenkins signed up. Adding sheriff candidates to the same ballot won’t cost the county any more than it was already shelling out.
Another of Ensley’s concerns is the high chance of low turnout at a second primary.
“I think it’s going to be a challenge,” Ensley said. “We’re having to bring people back out to vote.”
While that is normally the case, in the primary earlier this month, Swain had a voter turnout of 28 percent, nearly double the state average, showing widespread interest in local races.
The runoff election will be held Tuesday, June 22, while early voting will take place from Tuesday, June 3, to Saturday, June 19.
To find out more, contact the Board of Elections.
Despite widespread criticism of the job he’s done, Swain Sheriff Curtis Cochran proved unstoppable in this year’s Republican primary. Cochran buried opponent Wayne Dover in a landslide with more than 77 percent of the vote.
In November, Cochran will go head-to-head with Democrat primary winner John Ensley, who had an impressive run with nearly 29 percent of the vote despite competing with a whopping seven other candidates.
If the primary is any indication, the November race will be close. At the end of Tuesday’s primary, Ensley walked away with 513 votes, while Cochran received 525.
“I’m just in awe of how may people came out and supported me,” said Ensley. “There were a lot of great candidates.”
Cochran said he had been hoping for a landslide, and characterized the win as evidence of success during his first term.
“I think the support shows that the people are pleased with the job we’ve done,” said Cochran.
Ensley said his emphasis on community involvement in the sheriff’s office, more education for officers, outreach programs in the school system and better networking with surrounding counties all contributed to his win.
During the primary, almost all candidates emphasized their experience in law enforcement, drawing a sharp contrast between them and Cochran, who had no prior law enforcement training before being elected sheriff.
But Cochran has retorted that he is the lone candidate with on-the-job experience as sheriff. He has undergone training and participated in seminars since taking office as well.
Cochran said despite many candidates touting their experience, no one could ever say they’ve had enough training. “It’s a learning process every day,” said Cochran. “We run across something new just about on a daily basis.”
Ensley is the owner of Yellow Rose Realty but is also a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer. He has worked as a jailer in Florida and worked for Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years as well.
Controversial issues were not few or far between during Cochran’s first term as sheriff: a suspected murderer escaped from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran sued Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for discriminating against him by essentially reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchased a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail continued to sit half-empty.
Candidates were lining up and campaigning more than a year before the actual primary. Now, the focus will be on the upcoming general election.
Ensley plans to emphasize his 18 years of business experience, in addition to his law enforcement training. “You need to know the law, but also be an administrative and PR guy [to be sheriff],” said Ensley, adding that he knows how to run an organization and build working relationships.
Ensley says he will also cooperate with county commissioners if elected as sheriff. “It is imperative that we do that,” said Ensley.
Cochran said he hopes both Republicans and Democrats will come together to support him in November.
Similar to his last election campaign, Cochran will focus on eradicating drugs in Swain County.
“We have taken a stand against drugs from day one, and we’re going to continue that,” said Cochran.
Democrat – one winner advances
John Ensley: 513
Mitchell B. Jenkins: 285
David Thomas: 236
Julius F. Taylor: 218
Steve Buchanan: 197
Steve Ford: 150
David Franklin: 119
Chuck Clifton: 53
Republican - one winner advances
Curtis Cochran: 525
Wayne Dover: 156
Haywood County sheriff
Bobby Suttles*: 3,720
Dean Henline: 966
*The winner will face a Republican challenger in the fall.
Democrat – one advances
George Lynch: 965
Richard Davis: 776
Ricky Dehart: 114
There is, perhaps, no sheriff’s race as hotly contested as the one currently taking place in Swain County.
Sheriff Curtis Cochran’s volatile first term as sheriff has brought no shortage of issues — or candidates — to the Swain sheriff’s race this year.
Challengers were lining up and campaigning more than a year ago. The moment they’ve long awaited is now here.
Eight Democrats will battle it out during a primary this May, while Cochran will compete head-to-head with newcomer Wayne Dover for a spot on the Republican ticket.
Candidates spoke with the Smoky Mountain News on the myriad issues facing Swain’s sheriff office and on their vision for the next four years.
Among those topics: a suspected murderer’s escape from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran’s ongoing lawsuit against Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchasing a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail sitting half-empty.
All or nearly all candidates say they want to bring more professionalism and training to the Sheriff’s Office, combat a growing drug problem in the county, and rebuild a relationship with the community, the commissioners, and surrounding counties.
Cochran sued the county commissioners after they took away a long-established “meal deal” shortly after he was elected. For decades, Swain County commissioners paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed jail inmates and allowed him to pocket any surplus. The off-the-books subsidy bolstered the sheriff’s salary, which was otherwise the lowest of any sheriff in the state.
Other jurisdictions had already gotten rid of the corruption-prone policy, and Swain commissioners voted to follow in their footsteps two weeks after the 2006 election. Cochran filed a lawsuit claiming the county reduced his salary because he was a Republican, while commissioners and most of his predecessors were Democrats.
Cochran asked commissioners to increase his salary from $39,000 to $80,000. The lawsuit is ongoing, while Cochran continues to receive much lower than average pay. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office is struggling to cope with a reduction in its budget and layoffs after the recession hit.
Meanwhile, the sheriff and the commissioners have been at constant odds over the sheriff’s operating budget, staffing levels and salaries for deputies.
John Ensley (D) would like to see a salary increase for deputies as well as the sheriff funded by a fee charged to criminals. As the owner of small business that’s still prospering amid a recession, Ensley said he’d do more with less at the Sheriff’s Office.
Steve Ford (D) said he’d work hard to justify every item in his budget to commissioners, backing them up with statistics if he had to. “You’ve got to justify your existence... [Cochran’s] lack of ability to prove to the commissioners the need for his budget is what created his cuts.”
Ford said the meal deal was borderline illegal. He’s in favor of having an increased salary for the sheriff, with a starting and ending income point, based on experience.
David Thomas (D) said since the county is often paying to train officers, it should also offer them enough pay to keep them working in Swain. “That’ll save the county money in the long run.” Thomas also supports a salary increase for the sheriff. He suggests using the money from the Road to Nowhere settlement to pay for raises.
Julius Taylor (D) said he has experience securing grant money for the Cherokee police. In a 15-minute presentation to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security he was able to score $180,000.
Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s taken a look at the sheriff’s budget and could not target any areas to cut. He said he’d have to see a further breakdown of actual spending to make a decision. Buchanan said the budget is a joint effort and that he’d work with the commissioners to come up with the best solution for all.
Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d like to see salaries brought up to where they should be. Clifton has heard of deputies whose families are eligible for food stamps. He says he will support the county in actively pursuing a commercial tax base for the county. “Without a tax base, we’re not going to be able to increase anything.”
Mitchell Jenkins (D) said the commissioners’ decision to cut the meal deal just had bad timing, and that they should not have jerked the rug out after Cochran took office. “They made it look political to the public.”
Considering all the duties that the sheriff carries out, Jenkins agrees that the sheriff should get paid more.
Jenkins said he’d work within the budget that is made available by commissioners.
Wayne Dover (R) said the commissioners’ timing was off, but Curtis knew what his salary would be before running. Dover said deputies need a raise before the sheriff because Swain is unable to compete with the salaries offered in Jackson County and Cherokee.
Dover said he’d apply for every grant that’s available, and would hire a full-time grant writer in-house to support the effort.
Curtis Cochran (R) would not comment on the ongoing lawsuit or the meal deal. Cochran said his department is always on the lookout for grants. He added that he disagreed with the commissioners cutting three deputies and a secretary from his department in last year’s budget.
“I feel that was very unfair for the people of Swain County, that their safety could be jeopardized by not having enough people on patrol.”
Curtis said he’s asked for the positions to be filled again in this year’s budget. Cochran pointed out that he’s had experience working on Swain County budgets since 1994.
No matter how well they get along with Sheriff Cochran, candidates claim that Cochran lacks the law enforcement experience to serve as Swain County’s sheriff. When Cochran was elected in 2006, he had no previous law enforcement experience.
During Cochran’s first term in office, a female jailer helped a man charged with murder in a double homicide escape from the Swain County jail. Cochran was allegedly warned by employees of a cozy relationship developing between the jailer and inmate. In another incident, an inmate escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse. The search ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74, during which Cochran shot at the tires of a getaway van the inmate had stolen.
Also during his term, a detention officer used the county’s Sam’s Club card to purchase a big-screen TV. The officer was later fired.
John Ensley (D) says he’s been trained to work in a correctional facility and has experience on the job. “I know what red flags to watch for, and how to manage issues.”
To prevent more escapes, Steve Ford (D) plans to review hiring practices, look at his employees’ job performance, and make sure there’s standard operating procedures in place. In the case of the big screen TV, Ford said he would have charged the employee with theft. “Did they use a credit card that wasn’t theirs? Why weren’t they charged? Fired is far from being charged.” Ford said Cochran has done the best he can do for a man with no prior law enforcement experience.
David Thomas (D) said he would not have female jailers working with male inmates and vice versa. “I don’t think that’s right.” Thomas said he never saw mishandling of county credit cards when he worked at the jail. “Curtis didn’t have no experience when he went in, I think that hurt him.”
Julius Taylor (D) said the escapes and credit card use show that Cochran did not have the right people in certain positions. Taylor said he would be a better supervisor if elected and make sure there is an official policy and procedure for the jail.
Taylor pointed out that Cochran had to learn from scratch, and even though he now has three years of experience in law enforcement, it doesn’t compare to Taylor’s 16 years. “Not saying he’s a bad person, he’s had three years of rough luck with it.”
Steve Buchanan (D) said the county should hire an experienced sheriff to stop crime in its tracks.
Buchanan claims he knows exactly what needs to be changed at the jail since he worked as a jailer there for seven months. He would not elaborate, however, because he had promised Cochran, his former boss, to not reveal problems in the jail during his campaign.
Buchanan believes he was unfairly fired from his night shift at the jail after he decided to run for sheriff. According to Buchanan, the county cited the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity, as justification for the firing. However, Buchanan was not a federal employee.
Chuck Clifton (D) said escape was caused by lack of education and mismanagement. “Sheriff Cochran has minimal law enforcement experience, none when he was elected, and that shows.” Clifton said he would use his education and experience to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Mitchell Jenkins’ (D) only comment on the issue was that in his view, Cochran has not established a good working relationship with his employees and with the community. “I don’t feel like people confide in him the way I’d want them to me.”
Wayne Dover (R) said the escapes resulted from a failure to listen to employees who warned Cochran about the jailer’s inappropriate relationship with the inmate she helped escape. “It’s not really, per say, his fault. It is still his responsibility.”
Curtis Cochran (R) said the jail escapes had nothing to do with him being sheriff. “If you got a person on the inside that’s going to help somebody escape, they’re going to do it.” Curtis said the jailer who helped the prisoner escape went through a background check and received state certification as a detention officer. “You’d have to have a crystal ball, I guess, to see what people are going to do, and I just don’t have one. And neither do the other candidates.”
Swain County opened its 109-bed jail aiming to receive overflow prisoners from other counties, raking in revenues that would help pay for the $10 million facility. Instead, surrounding counties built their own new jails, leaving Swain’s jail half-empty on most nights.
Cherokee prisoners make up the vast majority of out-of-county inmates helping to fill the jail and offset costs, but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians now plan on building its own jail as well. Swain’s jail is 75 percent larger than what it currently needs for its own inmates.
Cochran recently signed a deal that will bring back federal prisoners from the U.S. Marshal Service, which pulled out from Swain’s crumbling old jail because it lacked a fire sprinkler system. Still, that agreement has failed to bring in a significant flow of inmates, while the jail continues to cost taxpayers $610,000 every year.
John Ensley (D) denies that the jail was overbuilt since it will accommodate future growth in the region. Ensley said he’ll take part in an aggressive outreach effort to state, federal and local agencies. A good rapport will help lure prisoners to Swain’s jail in the future. “These other counties, they may have not built their jail as big as ours. Eventually, they’re going to reach capacity...I think we’ve got it, we’ve got to be positive about it.”
Steve Ford (D) says the brand new jail should pay for itself instead of costing taxpayers money. He supports charging those who are arrested a book fee and a $5 fee per day to offset the cost of their housing.
David Thomas (D) said he’d work with everyone in the community and county government to figure out a solution for the jail. “I think you’ll get more prisoners if you’re in the good grace of your surrounding counties that don’t have their own jail.”
Julius Taylor (D) said having a customer service attitude will greatly help the jail. Taylor said instead of reserving bed space for state or federal prisoners, he’d have a first-come, first-served approach.
Taylor, who has worked with the Cherokee police department for almost 16 years, said he’d also work aggressively to change Cherokee’s mind about building its own jail. “We run the jail, let us do what we’ve done for hundreds of years.”
Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s talked to Graham County’s sheriff, who has expressed interest in shutting down the antiquated jail there. According to Buchanan’s research, if two counties work together to operate one jail, it is considered a regional jail and may receive more federal funding. Buchanan insists that Swain’s commissioners would retain control over the jail if the arrangement comes to fruition. Graham currently sends its prisoners to the new jail in Cherokee County.
Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d try to work with federal agencies to entice prisoners to Swain’s jail. “We have a state of the art jail...There is no reason why we cannot entice or encourage outside agencies to house their prisoners in our jail.”
Mitchell Jenkins (D) said he needs to further study the jail to come up with the solution. Jenkins plans to sit down with commissioners to work on the problem. He said the county government should have surveyed surrounding counties about their plans to build jails. “If they had been aware of the situation, I feel like they went overboard with the size of the jail that was established. I feel like they got a bigger facility than they’re gonna need.”
Wayne Dover (R) said he’d rather have a jail too big than not big enough. He says if there are stiffer penalties, with more jail time, for those who are charged with crimes, the jail will pay for itself. Dover said he’s worried about Cherokee’s plans for a jail. “Steps need to be taken now.”
Curtis Cochran (R) said all surrounding counties except for Graham County now have their own jails. If the tribe builds its own jail, Cochran said the county will soon be at the mercy of the U.S. Marshal Service for inmates. Cochran pointed out that he inherited the jail problem when he took office.
In rare good news for Swain County’s jail, a new agreement will soon usher federal prisoners into the often half-empty facility.
Sheriff Curtis Cochran has worked for months to secure an official deal with the U.S. Marshals Service, which will pave the way for the return of federal prisoners and score the county $55 per prisoner per day.
“We’re thrilled to have this agreement with the Marshal Service and look forward to working with them,” said Curtis.
For now, it’s hard to say how many federal prisoners will be filing into Swain’s jail. The new deal falls short of a contract, so the marshals aren’t obligated to send any prisoners, and the jail is not required to set aside a certain number of beds for them. Such contracts only go to jails with federal money invested.
Swain’s new $10 million jail, which opened in December 2008, is more than four times larger than what the county needs to house its own inmates. County leaders hoped to house overflow inmates from other counties, but those counties were simultaneously building new jails of their own.
The county recently learned its last and best customer, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is moving forward with plans for a jail of its own as well.
This flurry of jail building in the region has posed yet another problem for Swain — other new jails are stealing away a share of the federal prisoners up for grabs.
“Lucky for us, we had a lot of jails that were newly constructed,” said Lee Banks, supervisor of the U.S. Marshals office in Asheville. “When they came on line, we were quick to provide them with prisoners that we’ve had, Cherokee County in particular.”
Fortunately for Swain, though, a federal courthouse is located in Bryson City near the jail.
“It’s what, a mile away from where we’re at,” said Cochran. “If they’re going to utilize this courthouse, it would be more feasible for them to house their inmates here.”
Swain routinely housed federal prisoners until four years ago, when the Marshals Service pulled out due to safety concerns. The old jail was plagued by temperamental locks and lacked a fire sprinkler system. Back then, the daily rate for federal prisoners was only $30 per person.
Although the new jail opened 14 months ago, it has taken time to reconnect with the federal marshal service.
Banks said he hasn’t sent federal prisoners Swain’s way since the new jail opened more than a year ago simply because there have been less prisoners.
Swain’s jail is currently housing a lone federal prisoner, who’s been there since October.
“Now we’ve got plenty of jails on line, I have fewer prisoners,” said Banks. “I’m not complaining — it’s just that our prisoner population has been low recently.”
At this point, it’s difficult for Banks to pinpoint how many federal prisoners will soon be occupying Swain’s jail.
“We’re using multiple jails in multiple areas of the state,” said Banks. “So it’s hard for me to predict how many prisoners we’ll have in the future.”
Cochran estimates that he would have 21 beds available for federal prisoners, 16 male and five female, but that number is flexible, he said.
As of last week, Swain County had 40 inmates in its 109-bed jail, including 18 from Cherokee and one federal prisoner.
The on-going tension between Swain County commissioners and the sheriff has surfaced yet again, this time over the root cause of the county’s $1 million budget shortfall.
“If it hadn’t been for the expenditures of the sheriff’s office we would have been pretty much been alright,” County Manager Kevin King said.
King cited excessive overtime and several additional positions added to the sheriff’s office over the past year as driving up costs by several hundred thousand dollars over above the budgeted amount.
Sheriff Curtis Cochran said the county is using his department as a scapegoat.
“It looks to me like the budget shortfall is poor management on the part of county administration,” Cochran said. “They need to look in the mirror and see where the problem lies. They are the watchdogs of the budget.”
The county spent $160,000 last year on overtime for jailers and deputies. Overtime was racked up every pay period thanks to a shift schedule that gave jailers and deputies 20 hours overtime each two-week pay period. They worked 60 hours one week and 24 the next, with overtime paid out whenever they went over 40 hours in a seven-day period.
King said the problem has now been solved by switching the overtime rules effective this month. Overtime pay now kicks in only after deputies and jailers accrue 86 hours over a two-week pay period. The alternative system for paying — or rather not paying — overtime is allowed under Department of Labor rules for law enforcement workers who often have longer shifts clustered together for several days in a row but then get several days off, King said.
King said he met with jailers and deputies to explain the new method for calculating their pay. He said they don’t like the new arrangement.
King said Cochran used the overtime formula to pay his people more, an end run in essence around salaries he thought were too low for his workers, King said.
Cochran admits without the regular overtime “Their paychecks are going to go down drastically.”
“They just barely make enough money to live anyway. They were dependent on some of this overtime to help them survive,” Cochran said. Some are getting second jobs, dropping health insurance coverage and even seeking food stamps and Medicaid.
But Cochran said eking out more pay for his people wasn’t his motive when implementing the schedule. He said it was part of a move from 8-hour to 12-hour shifts, which are more common in law enforcement, and to rotate who works weekend instead of it always being the same people.
“When we implemented this I wasn’t aware they had to pay the overtime like they say they had to,” Cochran said. “When you are looking for someone to blame they will pick someone to blame.”
King said overtime was only part of the budget problems emanating from the sheriff’s office. Revenue at the jail fell short of expectations. County leaders opened a big a new jail last year that was overbuilt in hopes of housing more prisoners from out of the county for a nightly fee. But the number of inmates housed from outside the county declined, however, shattering the county’s hopes of subsidizing the overly large debt payments.
King has blamed Cochran, but Cochran said it is out of his control. The jail project was started before Cochran took office. The county undertook an oversized jail despite neighboring counties that once regularly housed inmates in Swain building new jails of their own and decreasing the need to rent out bed space.
In addition, the county added several new positions to the sheriff’s office and jail over the past year. The extra jailers were needed to man the larger facility, or so everyone thought.
“The county commissioners approved every bit of this,” Cochran said. “They had to approve all the expenditures for the jail. They are the watchdogs of the budget. I don’t have the check book up here to write checks.”
King said the county should have cut some of the extra jailers when it became clear the jail wasn’t filling up and the extra jailers weren’t needed. Instead of cutting the positions, the extra jailers were made deputies and kept on the payroll.
“That was probably a mistake,” King said. “We didn’t have the money to keep them.”
But King said the commissioners were sensitive to accusations from the public that they weren’t treating Cochran fairly.
“They didn’t want to be perceived as doing anything political,” King said. King said they had been repeatedly chastised for having an ulterior motive whenever they turned down Cochran’s budget requests.
“People need to have good public safety, but that is not the issue. The issue is there is not the money to do it,” King said.
Cochran currently has a lawsuit pending against the county alleging that commissioners cut his pay as political retribution when he took office three years ago. Prior to Cochran’s term, the sheriff was paid a lump sum to feed inmates in the jail and could keep the surplus, as opposed to the county just paying the actual cost of the food.
When the practice was curtailed as Cochran went into office he claimed the effective pay cut was political retribution since he was a Republican and the commissioners are Democrats. The tensions have been brewing ever since.
When Swain County opened a new $10 million jail last fall with 109 beds — four times bigger than necessary for its own inmates — it was banking on housing federal prisoners and those from other counties to subsidize the cost.
Instead, the number of inmates housed from outside the county has shrunk dramatically, not grown. As a result, the oversized jail has been a drain on county coffers and proved a source of contention in an on-going feud between the sheriff’s office and county commissioners.
County Manager Kevin King says the onus falls on the sheriff to court inmates from other counties to fill the jail.
“He said it wasn’t his place to get contracts, but it is,” King said. “It is going to take the sheriff talking to the other sheriffs.”
But Sheriff Curtis Cochran says the commissioners should have secured commitments from other counties before embarking on the bigger jail, which was already in the works when Cochran took office in late 2006.
“I believe one thing I would have done was to have contracts in hand,” Cochran said. “I would want to think if I didn’t have contracts in hand I would have thought about a smaller jail.”
The county was supposed to line up commitments as a condition of its federal loan to build the jail. Terms of Swain County’s loan with the U.S. Rural Development program stipulated “the applicant obtain written commitments from the other parties who have verbally committed to wanting access to jail beds.”
That never happened, however. Instead, the sheriff at the time, Bob Ogle, got verbal commitments, King said.
Since Cochran took office, Swain has seen the number of inmates it houses from Graham, Cherokee and Haywood counties, as well as federal prisoners under the custody of the U.S. Marshall Service, all but dry up. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only outside entity contracting with Swain for jail space on a significant level.
The reason appears to have little to do with Cochran, however.
Like Swain, both Haywood and Cherokee counties have built new jails and can now handle their own inmate volume in-house. When Swain embarked on a new jail in 2005, it was common knowledge that other counties were doing so as well, but Swain overbuilt anyway.
Graham County is one of the only counties that still faces chronic over-crowding at its jail. But instead of sending inmates to Swain, it now sends almost all of its overflow to the new Cherokee County jail, according to Graham County’s chief jailer.
Cherokee County is closer for Graham, saving time and money on transport. In addition, Cherokee County charges only $40 a night per inmate while Swain charges $50 a night.
Cherokee County’s new jail — sporting 150 beds — is even bigger than Swain’s. It is often only half full, however — even with Graham County’s overflow and federal prisoners that once went Swain’s way — adding to the glut in jail beds the region seems to have these days.
As for the decline in federal prisoners, that trend was under way prior to Cochran taking office in late 2006. The U.S. Marshall Service had come to view Swain’s old jail as inadequate and unsafe. It was riddled with cracks and leaks and plagued by temperamental locks. But the biggest concern was no sprinkler system, the dangers of which came to light when eight people were killed in a fire at the Mitchell County jail.
“After the fire in Mitchell County there were concerns about older facilities without adequate fire suppression,” said Kelly Nesbit, chief deputy with the western district of the U.S. Marshall Service.
Nesbit began pulling federal prisoners out of the Swain jail and housing them elsewhere. Although Swain opened its new jail last fall, federal prisoners have yet to return. Nesbit said they simply got used to using other jails, and it has taken a while to get Swain back on the radar as a viable facility.
“The federal government moves slow. It just take a while for things to turn around,” Nesbit said.
The U.S. Marshall Service has 15 jails west of Interstate 77 that it uses to house prisoners, Nesbit said. But Bryson City is the location of a federal court, so it would be convenient to start housing them there again, he said.
Cochran blames county leaders for the decline in federal prisoners. He said the county threw away a chance to put in a smoke evacuation system in the old jail that would have satisfied safety concerns and allowed them to keep housing the federal inmates.
The Marshall Service even came through with a $30,000 grant to help pay for the smoke suppression system, but Swain never acted on the grant and it was rescinded.
Cochran said the Marshall Service pulled strings to get the grant for Swain and was perturbed Swain decided they didn’t want it after all.
“The $30,000 allocated for Swain County was only provided after numerous phone calls and letters between myself and headquarters,” U.S. Marshall Gregory Forest wrote in a letter to Sheriff Bob Ogle in December 2003. Forest wrote that he wanted to continue their “long working relationship” with the county, but that the county “must complete this process without delay.”
The Marshall Service perceived it as a snub, Cochran said.
“They seemed to think that Swain County just wasn’t interested in housing their inmates because they wouldn’t accept the money after they went to great lengths to get it to help upgrade the jail,” Cochran said.
King said the county walked away from the grant because it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of the system.
“The system would have cost a lot more than $30,000. It would have been around $100,000. That was just not doable,” King said.
Ultimately, the decision cost the county more in lost revenue than it would have spent to install the system. The county would have made its money back on the system in less than two years if federal prisoners had continued to flow Swain’s way at the same volume as years’ past. Instead, the county is now entering its third year without housing federal prisoners.
Cochran wasn’t sheriff during the episode over the sprinkler system and said he didn’t understand why they weren’t getting federal prisoners anymore. Cochran recently called a meeting with the U.S. Marshall Service to figure out what the problem was.
“After I got to investigating it a little bit and talked to the right people as to why we weren’t getting inmates, we started working on it,” Cochran said.
County commissioners suggested Cochran is to blame for a declining number of inmates being housed at the Swain jail from outside the county. The theory was vocalized during a county budget workshop in June. Cochran heard about the accusation and challenged King to name the counties that allegedly had a problem with him.
“I said ‘If there is somebody out there let me know so I can make amends,’” Cochran said. Cochran asked for the clarification three times, including twice via email.
King responded that he knew of no entity in particular other than a miscommunication with the Eastern Band last year. The Eastern Band, however, is the only entity that actually houses more prisoners with Swain now than it did three years ago.
Cochran said he is doing what he can to court other counties.
“When we moved into the jail I sent out an email to every sheriff’s office in the state and let them know we were in our new facility and had bed space,” Cochran said.
Cochran also met with the Graham County commissioners in the spring, and recently met with the U.S. Marshall Service.
One cloud hanging over the Swain jail is the escape of a murder suspect earlier this year. The suspect had been slipped a key by a jailer who ran away with the suspect. Cochran said the inside job was not a reflection on the security of the jail itself.
The escape has no bearing on whether to house overflow inmates there, according to Nesbit with the U.S. Marshall Service and the chief jailers from Graham or Cherokee counties.
“That’s happened in federal institutions before,” Nesbit said of escapes. “It is just part of the kind of business we are in.”
Out-of-county inmates housed in the Swain jail have declined drastically under Sheriff Curtis Cochran compared to the last year of former sheriff Bob Ogle’s tenure.
2005-06 8,029 inmate nights from out-of-county
2008-09 3,940 inmate nights from out-of-county