FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Channel 2 Action News has uncovered more trouble inside a local jail that’s seen its fair share of problems.
Thousands of dollars that were earmarked for inmate care, were instead spent on flowers, gift cards for staff, and more.
Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Mark Winne questioned Fulton County Sheriff Pat LaBat about the money mismanagement.
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LaBat said after questions about spending from the inmate welfare fund came from various places, his office investigated and found many expenditures that simply were not proper and not for inmate welfare.
He said this was a factor in two firings so far and wants to be open about what’s happening.
“Bills had been paid out of the inmate welfare fund that didn’t really relate to inmate welfare?” Winne asked. “Well there were some things that were paid out of the wrong account,” LaBat answered.
LaBat said the money in the Fulton County Jail inmate welfare fund comes from commissary purchases of snacks by inmates, and from inmate phone calls.
But he acknowledges that some people at the sheriff’s office have made some bad calls about what to buy with the fund.
He said that while most purchases since the start of 2021 appear proper, some purchases appear to have nothing to do with inmate welfare.
LaBat said he saw an ordinance governing the fund not long before his staff provided it to Channel 2 Action News.
The ordinance reads, “A committee composed of the sheriff, the chief jailer, and the chairman of the board of commissioners or his appointee is hereby established, who shall be responsible for all items purchased out of the welfare fund.
“Did you have any idea until recently that this existed?” Winne asked. “No all of this came to light recently as we continue to investigate and complete our remediation,” LaBat replied.
“Does this committee ever meet?” Winne asked. “Not once have they met in my entire time being sheriff,” LaBat responded.
Some examples Channel 2 Action News found in inmate welfare fund expenditures documents that were provided to us include $509,073.76 for extra uniforms for officers, $39,813.43 in gift cards from The Honey Baked Ham Company, intended for staff at a holiday party that was postponed due to the pandemic, $5,000 for a City of South Fulton District 3 Thanksgiving giveaway, $39,550 for NIXLE Notification System, $2,601 for florist orders, and a cluster of expenses ranging from a face painting booth, to DJ services, to a tropical bounce house, and others linked to employee appreciation and community diversion.
“There was no criminal intent as we have found. Everything that has come out of the inmate welfare fund has been spent on the betterment of the sheriff’s office,” LaBat said.
Channel 2 Action News tallied roughly $2.25 million tied to sheriff’s office vehicles or what appear to be vehicle-related expenses.
Of those expenses, two specific line items for inmate transport vehicles and inmate transport buses, totaled slightly less than $500,000.
“Even if the ordinance is vague, do you believe that any vehicles for the sheriff’s office were intended to come out of the inmate welfare fund?” Winne asked. “Well again, a lot of them were purchased out of the wrong fund and to that extent there stands the potential for that vehicle to be assigned specifically to detainees,” LaBat responded.
The sheriff said red flags from county finance officials and a request from County Commissioner Bob Ellis prompted the review of inmate welfare fund purchases.
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He’s updating policies and procedures and two sheriff’s office employees involved have been fired, though there were other factors in those firings besides the fund irregularities.
“We passed an audit for the last three years,” LaBat explained. “Ultimately our goal is to make sure that our future audits include line-by-line expenditures so that we can avoid these things.”
LaBat said he thinks it’s appropriate to buy inmate transport vans and buses out of the inmate welfare fund and some other vehicles.
But he said it’s a gray area about other vehicles because almost all of their cars can be used for inmates.
He said to date, the fund has not been reimbursed but certain types of spending will no longer come from the fund.
He maintained the sheriff’s office has been underfunded, but said that doesn’t justify what happened here.
Chairman Robb Pitts said he’s never heard of the committee either, but it sounds like a great idea.
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