ETOWAH COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin is getting a lot of heat and publicity over how he profits from the inmates food fund in his jail.
And he has something to say to people who are upset to hear about it:
"I don't change laws, I don't make the laws," Entrekin told WBRC. "People don't like it. Get on their legislators and change the law. I, as the sheriff, have asked them to change the law, I, as the sheriff, have tried to give it back to the county commission on numerous times. They won't take it. They don't want it."
Entrekin's response is to news stories that he pocketed $750,000 from the inmates food fund in three years. It's a fact that happens to be legal for him to do so.
Entrekin points to a state law that makes the sheriff financially responsible for feeding the inmates in his jail. It dates back some 80 years, to an era before proper dieting and before enforcement of constitutional provisions that inmates are entitled to meals that fit their religious practices. That law gives the sheriff $1.75 per inmate per day, but also makes him responsible for the balance needed to buy the food.
"The law also goes on to say that, if there's any excess, the sheriff can use it for his personal use. And so, that's what I've done," Entrekin adds.
Entrekin says he inherited an inmate food program that was in the red, and when he chose to make it a business, he turned it around.
"Nobody cried out when I took over as sheriff and nearly got close to $400,000 in debt, and didn't know what I was going to do and how I was going to pay it back, until I decided that I was going to make this a business," he says.
News reports also point out that Entrekin and his wife, Karen, a former Etowah County sheriff's investigator who is now a federal probation officer, own some $1.7 million dollars in real estate, including a condo recently bought in Baldwin County worth $750,000.
Entrekin didn't deny any of that when asked.
"What does that have to do with the food bill? Honestly, what does it have to do with the food bill?" he shot back. "I'm not going to apologize for my family making wise decisions in business deals. You know, we bought some houses, we bought some condos down there over the years, and we flipped 'em just like every other business person has. And so, I'm not going to apologize for that. That's my business, that's my family's business."
When we asked if the law required him to keep the excess money--not just allowed, but required -- Entrekin said there was no way he wouldn't keep the money, especially since he is required to disclose it as personal income and pay taxes on it.
"Somebody that runs a business on Broad Street, they don't give the money back that they make a profit off of," Entrekin says, referring to the main downtown street in the Etowah County seat of Gadsden.
Entrekin says his jail -- which also contains two floors of ICE detainees of various religious faiths -- has 60 different diets that go to inmates every day. They vary based on health issues and religions, and also include vegan diets. He has a dietician on staff to follow ICE regulations for the detainees.
Entrekin says he also makes deals with local farmers and grocers that save a lot of money. If the county commission were to take it over, they would be bound by the state bid law and wouldn't be able to operate it as cheaply.
Still, Entrekin is in a re-election campaign this year, and one of his Republican primary opponents, Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton, has said he will give all the excess money back to the sheriff's office to spend on other items.
The controversy over Entrekin and the food fund has lit up Facebook among supporters and opponents of Entrekin. One of those commenting is retired Etowah County Circuit Judge and onetime Presiding Circuit Judge, Allen Millican, who came to Entrekin's defense.
Millican pointed out that when the grand jury meets four times a year, they are required, among other things, to investigate the jail and its accounts, including the food account.
"In 17 years (68 Grand Jury Examinations) while I was on the bench there has never been any discrepancies reported," Millican said on Facebook. "If you don't like the law, change it."
Entrekin, who has been with the sheriff's office in various capacities since 1983, says he's heard numerous opponents over the years claim they will give the money back but predicts they never will. As for his own situation, Entrekin says if legislators want to take the food account away from him, that's fine by him.
"I don't want to be a restaurant owner, I don't want to do that. I want to be the sheriff. But the law says that as the sheriff, comes the responsibility of feeding inmates, and the excess I can keep for my personal use."
Entrekin is one of 49 sheriffs in Alabama required to personally pay to feed his inmates, and one of 49 being sued for not complying to public records requests from watchdog groups about those food accounts.
A few other counties have since had laws enacted, turning the food programs over to their county commissions. Jefferson and Calhoun Counties both have programs paid for and run by their county commissions.