Despite Errors Found in Audit and a Pending Investigation, Oklahoma Reelects Incumbent Sheriff

In March of this year, an Oklahoma County judge was "appalled" to learn that inmates at the Oklahoma County jail were expected to pay not only their costs of incarceration, but they are also being overcharged to accommodate indirect costs of incarceration--footing the bill for things like sentencing programs, court clerk and juvenile justice salaries, and payroll of the Oklahoma County public defender's office--something that outraged Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz, who neither knew of the situation nor wanted inmate fees to pay his staff's salaries.

I wrote about this previously in my article regarding "The Economics of Incarceration." Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel seemed caught off guard by the criticism, saying that no one had complained before. He said that he had done nothing wrong, and that his office had "absolutely nothing to hide."

Well, surprise, surprise. On the same day the Huffington Post published my criticism, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater requested an audit of jail funds. Now, the results of the audit are in, and they are highly critical of Sheriff Whetsel's use of funds in managing the Oklahoma County Jail.

The audit found that the Sheriff's Office did utilize unallowable costs used in calculating the inmate average daily rate of incarceration. Additionally, inmate incarceration fees were invoiced and collected by the Sheriff's Office itself, rather than through the Court Clerk's office, as required by state law.

Other key findings include the following:

  • The Sheriff's Office did not pay inmate healthcare even though funds were available to do so at the time the contracts were due.
  • The Office spent about $900,000 to purchase Sheriff vehicles, even though the Office's other financial obligations were unmet.
  • The office used subsequent year funds to pay obligations from the previous fiscal year in violation of state law.
  • Unallowable costs may have been charged against the 'Aggregate Limit' of the Armor Correctional Health Services, Inc. contract.
  • Two outside organizations, HOPE Team and FOP Lodge #155 activities are managed by Sheriff Office employees during County work hours.
  • Donations received by the County Sheriff's Office were not presented and accepted by the Board of County Commissioners.
  • For the FY2015, the Oklahoma County Reserve Deputy program cost approximately $263,855.39. There is some question about whether there is an inappropriate relationship between individuals granted a Special or Reserve Deputy position and campaign contributions made by the individual to the Sheriff's campaign fund. The audit shows that donations were not properly presented or approved by the Board of County Commissioners, and that the Sheriff's Office allowed use of facilities for unauthorized groups.
  • The Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office accepted a donation of Sheriff Whetsel's personal vehicle, after a $28,000 payment was made to a trust in Whetsel's wife's name. This and two other vehicle donations were neither handled appropriately nor approved by the Board of County Commissioners.
After reading the audit, the sheriff issued the

I encourage citizens to read the full report and, while doing so, keep three fundamental things in mind.
• There is no allegation or finding that I or anyone else misappropriated money or benefitted [sic] in any way,
• Every decision made by me or the leadership of the Sheriff's Office was made in an effort to best serve our County, and,
• I take full responsibility for the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office and pledge that we will work tirelessly to seek continued improvement in every area of our operation.

The Sheriff also claimed that many of the audit's findings were already being remedied prior to the release of the report, and that any findings of wrongdoing were unintentional errors.

However, soon after the audit results were made available to the public, the chairman of the Oklahoma County Republican Party asked the Sheriff to suspend himself pending the outcome of the investigation in light of the audit's findings.

Oklahoma County GOP Chairman Daren Ward said, "The audit released last week shows instances of possible embezzlement, bribery and corruption. If this suspected behavior is proven to be true, it is not only inexcusable, but a complete violation of the trust the citizens of Oklahoma County have invested in the sheriff for the past two decades."

Well, Whetsel didn't suspend himself. In fact, on November 8, 2016, we was elected to his 6th consecutive term as the Oklahoma County Sheriff. Despite the fact that he is a Democrat running for election in one of the reddest states in the nation, and despite the fact that he is currently under investigation as a result of the audit, Oklahomans felt safe and secure in keeping the Sheriff in office.

This comes at a time when the Oklahoma County Jail is under constant national scrutiny for its overcrowded and overcharged prisoners. Tack on the fact that Oklahomans also passed two State Questions which will drastically change the state's laws regarding drug charges, and the potential fallout just keeps compounding on itself.

Oklahoma State Questions 780 and 781 were approved the same night Sheriff Whetsel was reelected. State Question 780 focuses on reclassifiying most drug charges for simple possession of a controlled dangerous substance from felonies to misdemeanors. Consequently drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and PCP which were previously classified as felonies for simple possession will now be reclassified as misdemeanors.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the fact that my state's electorate felt strongly about the mental health of many of my clients; however, I don't think this was the best question the legislature could have provided. Are Oklahoma's drug crime laws extremely archaic? Sure. But was this the best way to catch up with a much more progressive landscape involving the "war on drugs"? That, I'm not so sure of.

In all truth, these new measures are most likely the state's best alternative right now as opposed to the status quo. Oklahoma's prisons are simply too crowded. But here is the potential problem: misdemeanor sentences are served in county jail as opposed to state prison. Oklahoma's largest county just reelected a sheriff that has proven to be irresponsible with his department and the fees he charges his inmates. Now, he will potentially have even more criminal defendants confined in his jail.

These new laws have the potential to do a lot of good for many individuals. However, that potential can turn negative if the issues with the county jail and the Sheriff who runs it are not rectified. Let's hope a positive attempt at drug reform doesn't end up further jeopardizing the people it was intended to help.