Ogle allegedly dipped into the account for feeding jail inmates to boost his own salary. The call for an investigation is an odd twist of events, however, since the county commissioners seemingly have known about the meal kickback and its use for years.
For decades, the Swain County commissioners have paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed inmates in the county jail. The sheriff was never asked to account for how he spent the money. If he could feed the inmates for less, the remainder of the meal fund could be used however he pleased.
The meal kickbacks frequently were used to supplement the sheriffâs personal salary, which otherwise is the lowest in the state. In recent years, the surplus from feeding inmates potentially amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, according to county records.
The arrangement, right or wrong, wasnât Ogleâs invention. It was based on decades of precedent.
âThatâs the way itâs always been done,â said Dave Wiggins, a Swain County sheriff in the 1970s. âItâs been done that way as far back as I can remember.â
There are accounts of the meal kickback arrangement dating back to the 1940s when the sheriff and his family still lived on the first floor of the jail.
While many behind the scenes apparently knew about the meal fund, it has been made highly public in recent months, prompting county commissioners to acknowledge the improper use of meal money by the sheriff.
âThe board has decided to turn the matter over to proper authorities for further investigation,â Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones announced at the commissioners meeting last week.
Controversy over the meal deal first erupted last fall. Commissioners voted to end in-house preparation of meals for inmates by the sheriff, killing the meal slush fund and effectively reducing the sheriffâs salary.
Public outcry ensued over the timing of the vote â the move came just two weeks before a new sheriff was slated to take office. Many saw the 11th-hour move as partisan retribution by a Democratic board against the newly elected Republican sheriff, Curtis Cochran. Cochranâs narrow victory over Ogle was an upset of sorts in a county historically dominated by Democrats.
Cochran saw his salary shrink drastically just days before he was slated to take office. On the books, the sheriffâs salary was $38,000 a year. But by some accounts, the salary was more than $100,000 thanks to the meal fund.
Cochran and a large crowd of supporters packed the commissioners meeting to oppose the 11th-hour move, but to no avail. Commissioner David Monteith was the only board member who voted against it, not because he supported the meal fund but due to the questionable timing.
Controversy over the move continues to boil. The large crowd that packed that commissioners meeting last fall hasnât dissipated. Four months later, itâs still standing room only at commissionersâ meetings with chairs spilling out into the hallway. Those packing the meetings seem dissatisfied with the leadership on the board of commissioners and the way county business is conducted in general. Each meeting brings a new host of complaints lodged during the public comment session.
A recurring theme, however, has been the sheriffâs salary. Sheriff Cochran has returned to the commissioners three times asking for a boost in his salary, along with extra deputies and cars. All this could be funded with what was previously pumped into the meal deal fund, Cochran argues.
When commissioners ended the meal deal, they initially decided to buy prepared meals from the Swain County Hospital and have them delivered. But it actually cost the county more â $6 more per inmate per week than the rate the county paid Ogle, meal fund and all.
The food could clearly be prepared more cheaply in-house, where inmates do the cooking for free and food is ordered wholesale.
So the commissioners ended their contract with the hospital after a month and adopted a novel idea: prepare the food in-house at the jail but pay only for the actual cost of the food. Cochran saves his invoices from food purchases and turns them in to the county.
So far, Cochran is spending about $6,000 to $7,000 a month on food. Ogle was getting $13,000 to $14,000 a month for roughly the same number of inmates. Cochran wants to apply the savings toward a salary increase for him and hiring two extra deputies. The board of commissioners werenât sold on the idea.
Cochran was determined to prove his point, however. According to state law, it is illegal for county commissioners to âreduce the salary, allowances or other compensationâ of the sheriff in an election year unless they state their intention to do so early on â not after they see who gets elected.
But ending the meal kickbacks technically doesnât count as reducing the sheriffâs salary, allowances or compensation, according to County Manager Kevin King. Technically, the county didnât know that the sheriff was using the meal money for anything other than food.
âThere is no record that a sheriff has ever said they make money providing meals to inmates, because if they did it would be going against state law,â King said last fall.
It seemed Cochran had to prove his case. So he began culling through back receipts and checks that would show the meal account indeed was used to supplement the sheriffâs salary. When Cochran made his third appeal before commissioners last week, he brought along the office assistant that wrote checks from the account.
Commissioner David Monteith questioned her about the use of the meal account.
âWas anything else beside checks to food vendors written out of that account?â Monteith asked.
âYes,â replied Sandy Jenkins.
âAnything personal?â Monteith asked.
âYes,â Jenkins replied.
âOut of the money that was to be used for food, there were personal checks written?â Monteith asked.
âYes,â Jenkins replied.
Monteithâs line of questioning was cut short by County Attorney Kim Lay.
âI donât think this is really the forum to do this in,â Lay said.
Chairman Glenn Jones then announced the county had no choice but to turn the issue over to the district attorney to handle.
âWhen he implied Bob Ogle had used the food money for compensation, we were forced to turn it over the district attorney,â King said.
District Attorney Mike Bonfoey would not comment on the matter beyond saying that he had received a letter from the county about the issue.
âI am not going to confirm or deny that there is an investigation,â Bonfoey said.
Cochran said he did not intend to get Ogle in trouble, referring to Ogle as a friend.
âI donât blame Bob Ogle,â Cochran said. âWhatever he made, he made.â
Cochran said he only wanted to prove to commissioners that the surplus from feeding inmates was and always has been part of the sheriffâs compensation and allowances.
The commissioners have unanimously tabled Cochranâs request for a raise and extra deputies pending the outcome of the investigation. Cochran said he doesnât understand what that has to do with it.
âI donât know what their rationale is,â Cochran said. âThereâs none that I can see.â
Cochranâs supporters also have questioned why the county canât go ahead and put the recent savings on meals back into the sheriffâs budget.
âI donât think itâs right to make the sheriff wait for a raise,â said Virginia DeBord, a regular at the commissioners meetings.
Donât ask, donât tell
By all indications, the Swain County Board of Commissioners has known for quite some time the meal fund was problematic at best.
For starters, their auditor has been raising red flags about it for years.
âI donât think you could interview anybody who could say âNo I didnât know that was happening that way,ââ said Eric Bowman, a certified public accountant who prepares the countyâs annual audit. âIt is one of those things that should have been stopped long ago.â
There was always a gap in the countyâs record keeping, since no receipts or invoices were provided by the sheriff documenting the actual cost of the food.
When Bowman first cited the problem in his annual audit years ago, county leaders explained to Bowman things had always been done this way.
âWhen we first found this way back we said, âAt the least youâve got to give the sheriff a 1099 so he can at least report it on his income tax and it shows you arenât trying to hide anything,ââ Bowman said.
The county followed the advice and began providing Ogle with 1099 forms. That makes it difficult for the county to claim it didnât know Ogle was profiting off the meal deal. On one hand, the county claims it had no had knowledge of the meal fund, yet it provided Ogle with a 1099 to report his profits just in case.
Although Bowman continued to see the meal arrangement as a problem, he quit mentioning it in his audit reports.
âIt was almost like we were beating a dead horse,â Bowman said. âOnce it was obvious they werenât going to do anything about it, we just quit as long as everybody knew, the commissioners and the county finance officer and the county manager.â
Bowman said his job was simply to alert the county to any flaws in its accounting methods.
âWe werenât asked to go any further and find out what the actual cost of the meals were,â Bowman said.
When Jim Douthit was elected county commissioner chairman in 1998, he broached the idea of changing the meal set-up. Douthit said the county had no definitive knowledge of whether the sheriff was profiting off the meal allotment or not. Douthit said he was primarily interested in whether the inmates could be fed for less by contracting with the cafeteria at Swain County hospital, for example, or a senior citizen home that had facilities to prepare meals in bulk.
âWe were looking at ways to save the taxpayers money,â Douthit said. The idea died without being explored, however.
âThere wasnât enough support by the board members to push it forward,â said Douthit. Douthit was one of two Republicans on the county board at the time.
Douthit wasnât the first commissioner who attempted to end the meal fund. The first documented attempt dates back to the 1970s, but the meal deal survived intact on the other end of a political knockdown drag-out.
In 1978, a Republican-dominated board of commissioners reigned alongside a Democratic sheriff, Dave Wiggins. The commissioners decided they would no longer pay Wiggins a flat fee to feed inmates. Instead, bills for food would be paid directly by the county.
A test of wills ensued. Wiggins continued to buy food like he always had, but the county refused to give him any money for it.
Meanwhile, the county commissioners filed a lawsuit against the sheriff to gain access to his books, which they claim he concealed every year at audit time. The commissioners demanded the sheriff comply with the countyâs upcoming annual audit that year, and turn over his books from the previous two years as well. Otherwise âthe audit will again be hindered, delayed and impeded by the actions of the sheriff,â the suit claimed.
Wiggins fired back a protest, alleging political retaliation by the commissioners. Wiggins argued the sheriff had always been permitted to keep the surplus from feeding inmates.
âThere is no agreement in writing on the subject,â Wigginsâ response claimed, but the arrangement was based on âprior practice and from course of dealing and implication.â
Wigginsâ salary was the lowest in the state at $8,688.
âUnlike many counties in North Carolina where much higher salaries are paid, the fees collected by the sheriff of Swain County are made a part or supplement of the sheriffâs salary and are to be kept and retained by said sheriff as a part of his salary,â Wiggins claimed in his defense. âThe sheriff knows of no requirement to account for such fees since the same are, by law, a supplement to his low salary.â
The sheriff gave the county a daily roster of inmates to calculate his stipend.
âHe knows of no other or further accounting required of him concerning the feeding of prisoners,â the sheriffâs response stated.
Until recently, the meal allotment was still being paid out in the same way â except the allotment had grown from $5 to $10 per inmate per day.
Wiggins claimed the 1978 lawsuit over the meal money was yet another move in a pattern of political retaliation against him. When Wiggins took office, the same commissioners quit paying for deputies and took away all his patrol cars.
âThe actions of the Republican majority of the board of commissioners left the sheriff afoot, unarmed and single-handed,â Wiggins claimed in a counter suit against the Republican commissioners.
Not to mention the jail kitchen, which had been wiped clean. There were no utensils, pots, pans, plates, cups â yet Wiggins was supposed to feed the inmates.
Wiggins replaced the kitchenware out of his own pocket, but that didnât solve his problem of deputies or patrol cars. Citing an âintolerable and dangerous situation,â Wiggins went to Raleigh and asked the General Assembly for help. State lawmakers forced the county to provide two deputies, vehicles for the deputies and the sheriff, and a $600 monthly allowance to operate the cars.
In an interview last week, Wiggins recalled the era as a wild and rocky time.
âI did the best I could with what I had,â Wiggins said.
Wiggins doesnât think the meal deal should have been ended.
âI think they should give the sheriff so much for food and let him keep whatâs left over,â Wiggins said.
Itâs something former sheriffs, despite their party, seem to have in common. In Ogleâs final days as sheriff, he questioned the countyâs move to abruptly end the meal kickbacks before Cochran took over. Ogle said the commissioners should give Cochran a raise to make up the difference.
âIf they want to do that they need to provide a reasonable, decent salary for the sheriff,â Ogle said last fall. âThe sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer in the county. He deserves to have a salary that compensates him for that.â
Bill Lewis, a Republican sheriff that served in the 1980s, also spoke out against the commissionersâ decision last fall.
When Lewis was sheriff, he allegedly brought in meat and vegetables raised on his own farm to feed inmates, helping to make the meal arrangement even more lucrative than normal. The county could reach back all the way to Lewisâ term as sheriff with their drag net. There is no statute of limitations on how far back the county can go, according to King.