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Wednesday, 28 March 2007 00:00

Meal deal shines light on Swain’s dirty politics

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It’s not clear what Swain County commissioners are hoping to accomplish by turning over to the District Attorney’s office the investigation into the way the sheriff’s office handled excess meal money, but there’s evidence that a long list of people could be implicated if this probe is taken seriously.

 

Swain County has had a somewhat shady deal with its sheriffs for decades. The county paid the sheriff a salary that is the lowest in the state. However, county officials also paid the sheriff to provide meals to inmates — using inmate labor as a means of saving money — and then let the sheriff keep whatever proceeds were left in the meal account. By some accounts, this added nearly $100,000 per year to the salary of Swain’s most recent sheriff, Bob Ogle.

When Ogle lost the election in November to a Republican, Swain commissioners decided to end the practice and now require the sheriff to turn in receipts for all meal-related expenses. In effect, new Sheriff Curtis Cochran has had his salary slashed.

Here’s the rub: there’s mounting evidence county commissioners and county administration knew about the arrangement with its former sheriffs, so they could also be implicated for knowingly allowing the situation to continue. A long-time county auditor said he has been telling commissioners for years that the practice needed to be stopped. Former county commissioners and sheriffs said the arrangement was common knowledge among those in Swain County government, and present and former county commissioners say they have tried to end the arrangement. Ogle was even provided a 1099 tax form for the extra income, according to county administration.

The election of Cochran has turned the spotlight onto this odd meal deal. Since the arrangement has been discontinued, Cochran has been seeking a salary increase and more deputies. He says the money the county is saving on the meals will more than pay for his increases. Instead, commissioners have decided to ask for a formal investigation into the practice.

Recent stories by The Smoky Mountain News have revealed a pattern of dirty politics in Swain County. The state Board of Election is looking into several voting irregularities that allegedly took place during the last county board election, and many say voter fraud and intimidation have been going on for years. Now, a shady jail meal deal that has been going on for years is ended when a Republican gets into the sheriff’s office, and some say it is merely political retribution.

From all appearances, there is much to investigate in Swain County. So perhaps it is time to bring in the DA’s office and let them wade into this fray. It remains to be seen how many may be implicated if and when an investigation occurs, but it’s high time Swain County politics got cleaned up. That’s the least that taxpayers deserve.

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