No big deal....
Towering high above the streets of Gadsden, the Etowah County Detention Center is an outsized presence in the small northeast Alabama town.
As one of the largest buildings downtown, the facility seems too big to house only the county’s thieves, drug dealers and other accused and convicted criminals.
Indeed, the jail serves an additional purpose.
The detention center has a federal contract to incarcerate hundreds of undocumented immigrants who face lengthy legal battles over their immigration status and alleged crimes.
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin runs that jail. And he makes a lot of money doing it.
Earlier this year, he acknowledged that he keeps money budgeted for jail food that goes unspent, saying in a press conference that he kept more than $750,000 between January 2015 and December 2017.
But records show he had already pocketed more than twice that amount.
An AL.com review of hundreds of pages of county and sheriff’s office records has revealed for the first time the extent to which Entrekin and the county’s general fund benefited from the federal immigrant-detention contract.
For example, beginning in October 2011, the surplus from feeding federal inmates over the next three years was more than $3 million – half of which Entrekin pocketed and half of which went to the county’s general fund, according to the documents and interviews with county officials.
And when the federal contract was in jeopardy, Entrekin went to Washington, D.C., to lobby U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to keep it in place.
County officials confirmed the AL.com findings.
“The check has always been made out to him as sheriff,” said Kevin Dollar, Etowah County’s chief financial officer.
Entrekin did not respond to multiple requests to provide comment for this story.
Entrekin is not alone in keeping leftover funds intended to feed inmates. He and other Alabama sheriffs have argued that a Depression-era state law allows them to keep state jail food funds.
But Entrekin - who lost his bid for re-election earlier this year and will step down as sheriff next month - is the only Alabama sheriff whose jail houses hundreds of immigration detainees for the federal government.
Lawyers and other experts say that he may have run afoul of a number of federal laws by receiving the immigration money.
Jessica Vosburgh, executive director of the Adelante Alabama Worker Center advocacy group in Hoover, has long criticized Entrekin and the jail for what she called “shady dealings with money and food.”
She said the new findings should spur federal authorities to stop sending detainees to Alabama.
“I think, based on this information, [the federal government] unequivocally needs to terminate its contract with Etowah County. This is not a reputable, law-abiding partner for the federal government,” Vosburgh said.
“It’s a massive liability for the county, and with every new piece of information that comes out it looks worse and worse for what the county might be called on to pay if they’re ever held accountable legally for all this corruption and misuse of funds.”
How it works
For more than 20 years, the U.S. government has housed immigration detainees in the Etowah County Detention Center, a stark facility set against the backdrop of the low-lying southern foothills of Lookout Mountain.
A major hub of river commerce from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Gadsden evolved with the times to thrive as an industrial center through the end of the 1960s.
But as major plants closed and jobs dried up in the last decades of the 20th century, the town fell on hard times. By the 1990s, Gadsden was losing population, unemployment was soaring, and the town and Etowah County were settling into an economic stagnation that continues to this day.
While Gadsden was following the familiar script of the crumbling rural American industrial town, the Etowah County Detention Center, also known as the Etowah County jail, was on the upswing.
The federal government began housing detainees in the facility in 1997. By 2011, it had become a profit center.
Sheriff’s office budget documents obtained by AL.com show that each fiscal year between 2012 and 2014, the sheriff’s office expected to have between $772,000 and $1.2 million left over after feeding immigration detainees.
This Etowah County Sheriff's Office budget document shows that between October 2012 and September 2013, the sheriff’s office expected to have more than $1 million left over after feeding federal immigration detainees.
Budget documents also show the plan to split the surplus evenly between Entrekin and the county’s general fund.
That is exactly how the federal funds were ultimately disbursed, according to Dollar and David Akins, Etowah County’s chief administrative officer.
“With the [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] funds, the money comes in here, we show all the salaries that are paid for ICE and the different expenses that are paid for ICE that we're required to show, and at the bottom line, say if we had $100,000 [remaining] at the end of the year, then the commission would get $50,000 and the sheriff would get $50,000,” Akins said.
“That money - we pay him a flat rate for, you know, feeding the ICE inmates, and so I think that's something that was negotiated between him and the county commission over the years and [former] Sheriff [James] Hayes when he was here.”
‘Such a hell’
The amount the federal government pays per day to house immigration detainees varies from place to place.
Because the rate at the Etowah County Jail is one of the cheapest, it often houses undocumented immigrants facing complicated legal cases. They are arrested elsewhere in the U.S. but remain incarcerated in a state of legal limbo for months or years.
Entrekin has said the jail typically houses about 850 inmates at any given time, of which an average of more than 300 are immigration detainees.
Sanju Rajput, an Indian citizen now living in India who was detained in the Etowah County Detention Center for two years after his petition for asylum was denied in 2014, described the jail as “such a hell” for ICE detainees.
“Neither will they allow you to die, nor will you live. A pain [that] can only be understood in prison,” Rajput told AL.com in October online messages.
Federal audit reports note the detention center provides no opportunities for outdoor recreation. Advocacy groups and news organizations have for years reported on the complaints of immigration detainees who said they were underfed, denied sufficient access to medical care and legal and religious materials, and subjected to violence inside the facility.
Former inmates who worked in the jail’s kitchen told AL.com earlier this year that the facility cut corners however it could, serving expired and rotten food and even feeding inmates items recovered from a train wreck.
“We used to eat what we got: porridge in the morning, bread, jam, one or two more items [each day.] The food that we got was not enough,” Rajput said.
Entrekin has always maintained that his jail serves nutritional, high-quality meals. During a March press conference in Gadsden, he offered members of the local and national media plastic trays of breakfast that he said were typical of the meals served every morning in the facility.
Each maroon tray contained two boiled eggs, a piece of bread, a packet of grape jelly and a serving of grits.
The Etowah County Sheriff's Office offered trays of breakfast during a March press conference. The sheriff's office said they were similar to the meals inmates eat in the jail each morning.
Federal detention standards state that jail menus must be “reviewed annually by a qualified nutritionist or dietician to ensure that they meet the nationally recommended dietary allowances for basic nutrition.”
The standards also require that “[t]hree meals, including at least two hot meals, are provided at regular times during each 24-hour period,” and that meal preparation take “into consideration food flavor, texture, temperature, appearance, and palatability.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox declined to answer a series of detailed questions for this story.
“As a matter of policy this agency does not comment on, nor would it confirm, any potential investigation until if/when said investigation were to result in criminal charges,” he said via email. “Note, I am not stating any investigation exists in this case.”
On June 5, Entrekin lost his bid for re-election in the Republican primary by a nearly 2-1 margin.
He blamed the loss on a March AL.com report that revealed that Entrekin purchased a $740,000 beach house in Orange Beach last year after pocketing more than $750,000 worth of jail food funds between 2015 and 2017, a revelation that earned him the nickname “Beach House Sheriff.”
"We never recovered from that first article," Entrekin told The Gadsden Times after he conceded to his opponent, Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton, on the night of the primary.
Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin. (Via Todd Entrekin for Sheriff)
Over the course of his more than a decade in office, Entrekin has fought hard to protect the federal contract that has been such a boon to his income stream.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the federal money came in 2010, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it planned to stop housing immigration detainees in the Etowah County Detention Center.
The announcement came three years after a 2007 ICE inspection report stated that the facility had failed to meet nine of ten federal standards, including ones governing inmate-feeding, medical care and access to legal materials.
Entrekin and members of Alabama’s Republican congressional delegation strongly opposed the move, warning publicly that it would result in job losses and sharp cuts to law enforcement programs.
In March 2011, Entrekin and staffers for U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Hayleyille, made the case for continuing the contract during a meeting with ICE officials in Washington, D.C., Entrekin said in an April 2011 statement.
“I met with Aderholt’s personal staff,” Gary Mead, ICE’s executive associate director for enforcement and removal operations, wrote in a March 2011 email to other officials at the agency, NBC News reported in 2012. “I do not believe we will be allowed to leave Etowah without serious repercussions against our budget … Discretion may be the better part of valor here."
Asked about the 2011 negotiations, Brian Rell, Aderholt’s chief of staff, provided a one-sentence statement.
“The reason why [Rep.] Aderholt advocated for the Etowah jail was because it was the lowest-cost solution for ICE detainees in the region,” Rell said.
Entrekin said in his April 2011 statement that he played a key role in ensuring the federal money kept pouring in.
“I believe the turning point of this decision came when I, along with staff members of Congressman Aderholt’s office, was able to sit down and personally meet with [Mead] and Felicia Skinner, [ICE’s] Atlanta Field Office Director,” Entrekin said.
The Etowah County Sheriff's Office is headquartered in downtown Gadsden.
‘One big pot’
Entrekin has repeatedly said he ran the jail’s food operation as a “private business.” AL.com reporting has shown that the proceeds from that business were much higher than his $93,178.80 annual sheriff’s salary.
Entrekin said in March he believed state law allowed him to keep the surplus that remained after feeding the jail’s inmates. That assertion has been bolstered by opinions published by multiple Alabama state attorneys general over the past decade stating that sheriffs can in fact pocket funds allocated by the state to feed inmates that are not used for that purpose.
“It’s the law. I haven’t done anything wrong,” Entrekin said at the time. “If it's wrong, somebody needs to change the law. I have asked [state legislators] to change the law and they have not changed it.”
But by taking federal money, he may have run afoul of both criminal and civil law, according to some lawyers and former federal fraud investigators.
“There’s pretty much no way that the federal government is OK with this. Regardless of what he argues about the Alabama law, if it comes to light that he’s taking these federal funds that are supposed to be used to feed and house federal prisoners, and instead is putting [hundreds of thousands of] dollars in his pocket, that would be of great interest to federal prosecutors,” said Randall Eliason, a professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., who previously served as chief of the public corruption and government fraud section at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
“There are multiple statutes that could be used, but the specific statute doesn’t matter that much. The nature of the crime is theft from government.”
There has been some disagreement within the Department of Justice in the past over whether federal contractors like Etowah County can be required to return any federal money they receive that is not used for its intended purpose.
Some officials argued in a 2007 audit report by the department that leftover money cannot be recouped because the contracts are negotiated at a fixed price. Others disagreed, saying the government should be allowed to reclaim unspent money.
The Justice Department has the power to demand repayment of federal money in certain circumstances. It demonstrated that power in November 2017, when it notified 29 so-called “sanctuary” states, counties and cities that they could be required to return millions of dollars worth of federal grant money if they could not show that their policies were legal under federal immigration law.
Entrekin said in July that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General had launched an investigation into how he handled jail food funds and that his lawyer had given records to federal investigators.
In October, five national and local advocacy groups sent a letter to Alabama’s three U.S. attorneys, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI Director Christopher Wray and other top federal officials urging them to also investigate potential misuse of jail food funds by Entrekin and other Alabama sheriffs.
Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights who signed the letter, said that AL.com’s revelations about how Entrekin handled federal money further demonstrate why an investigation is necessary.
The Atlanta-based advocacy group has fought with little success over the past year to obtain jail food money records from the more than 45 of Alabama’s 67 county sheriffs who are still responsible for managing jail food funds. The other counties have passed laws taking responsibility for feeding inmates away from their sheriffs.
"This sounds like a gentleman’s agreement to swindle the public, to the tune of millions of dollars. As a result of this corruption, detainees must choose to eat rotten food or lose weight while the sheriff fattens his wallet,” Littman said via email.
“Now more than ever, an investigation is urgently needed.”
Peter Henning, a professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit who previously specialized in criminal fraud cases as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, said that Entrekin may have run afoul of multiple federal statutes by pocketing federal money.
“If you are taking money that is intended for a specific government program - that is, feeding ICE detainees - you can’t take that for your personal use. That could be misapplication of federal funds or embezzlement,” Henning said.
“If it is supposed to be used for the care and feeding of ICE detainees, then that’s all you can use it for. It’s not free money.”
Some experts said that Entrekin could claim that he only kept state and municipal money and that he used all the federal funds for the purposes for which they were allocated.
But Entrekin said in his March press conference that he was “using it all together” after he was asked if he keeps federal, state and municipal inmate-feeding funds separate when purchasing food for inmates and pocketing any “leftover” money.
“It goes back to the basic notion that money is fungible. If I put all the money together, I can’t say it came from one source, it’s all in one big pot,” Henning said.
“The federal courts have not accepted these what I would call ‘cute’ arguments that ‘I was using the other money.’ If there is any federal money in there, it’s all treated as federal.”