Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sheriff John Whetsel Illegally Detains Citizens

Whetsel the Weasel Hits the End of his Chain

  Hitting the end of his chain is exactly what it is looking like, like the mongrel dog charging at an interloper and suddenly hitting the end of the dog chain.  Whetsel has had an impressive run, twenty years of being the sheriff of Oklahoma County thanks to membership in the good old boys club and being protected by the Oklahoman.  But all that began unraveling a few weeks back as indications of the honeymoon being over started trickling out of the annual court hearing where the daily incarceration pay rate is set by a district judge.

   Seems there had been two hearings since the first of the years and news stories briefly touched on friction between the sheriff department and Judge Elliot.   But the innuendos blew sky high last week when Oklahoma County D.A. David Prater, one of Whetsel’s former supporters and protectors leaked a letter that asked State Auditor Gary Jones to investigate the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s office for violating state law and the Oklahoma Constitution while stating that the investigation could “result in criminal charges.”

   The Sooner Tea Party was at the 3:30 pm Friday court hearing and Capt. Jon Skuta, the Sheriff Department finance officer was visibly shaken during the entire hearing.  Of course Sheriff John Whetsel was nowhere to be seen.  Probably down in Florida where he doesn’t have to answer questions from outraged judges, citizens, and reporters.

 Here are the potential areas of investigation:

  • Whether the Oklahoma County Sheriff and or his administrative staff created debt by entering into contracts with vendors or service providers, failing to encumber sufficient funds and then willfully refusing to pay those contracts with available appropriations or special revenue funds;
  • Whether the Oklahoma County Sheriff and or his administrative staff paid outstanding debt or contract balances for a specific fiscal year with subsequent fiscal year funds;
  • Whether the Oklahoma County Sheriff and or his administrative staff created a debt by expending more funds than were available to expend through general fund appropriations or any other special revenue source;
  • Whether the Oklahoma County Sheriff and or his administrative staff have provided false or misleading information to the Oklahoma County District Court in their request to the Court to set per diem rates for County inmates. You should consider whether costs or expenditure figures were accurate and whether inappropriate items were included in the jail operation costs or if required offsets were omitted from the reported jail operation costs;
  • Whether the Sheriff and or his administrative staff deposits all special revenue funds in statutorily approved accounts. The source of all special revenue should be identified and income amounts should be confirmed;
  • Whether the Sheriff and or his administrative staff expended all sources of funding in lawful manner;
  • Whether there is any relationship between individuals granted a Special or Reserve Deputy position and campaign contributions made by the individual to the Sheriffs campaign fund. Please include in your inquiry any monetary or in-kind donation made to the Sheriffs campaign or the Sheriffs Office. Determine the costs of the Special or Reserve Deputy program, including, but not limited to vehicle costs and vehicle maintenance costs, equipment and uniform costs, etc.

  On charge #1, it refers to the ongoing lawsuit with Armor Correctional Health Services who sued for around $660,000 in March and filed another suit in October of 2015 for $3,314,610.00 in unpaid medical bills and expenses.  The County Commissioners are the target of the last suit and county officials including Whetsel might be found personally responsible for the unpaid bills.

  Whetsel claimed in October that his department had plenty of money, alledging that he had over eight million dollars left in reserve at the end of the fiscal year but so far he has offered no explanation of why he refuses to pay the medical contract.   Whetsel had 47 million in county funds to pay expenses plus his fee driven income and money from the state for housing state prisoners.   County commissioners say that Whetsel told them he didn’t have the money and that the county commissioners expected Whetsel to make cuts in his budget so he could pay the medical bills.  Travel could have been reduced, stopping the participation of sheriff vehicles in parades, not allowing deputies to take cars home at night, all of which Whetsel refused to implement.

  Whetsel blames a shift in DOC policy that has the state picking up convicted felons at a quicker rate than in the past, lessening the amount of state money received by local sheriff offices.  However Whetsel had been housing hundreds of state convicts in his jail at a rate of $32.00 per day, a figure that would come back to haunt him this week.

  The reality is that Whetsel has played this game before, run up medical bills on inmates and refusing to pay, getting sued, and having the county government pick up the tab.  That effectively increased his budget by millions of dollars a year that he could expend on useless programs that increased his political viability and visibility.  There have been numerous lawsuits over the years for unpaid medical expenses of inmates in the car of Sheriff Whetsel who is bound by law to cover the medical care of inmates in his custody.

  In 2015 the annual audit uncovered irregularities in payroll and leave accounting, resulting in a new accounting program being implemented and the sheriff department spokesman blamed the three million dollar short fall on a change in state law that requires the DOC to refuse to pay for keeping convicted inmates if the judgment and sentence paper work is not turned in within three days.

Charge #2 pertains to paying old bills from the previous years’ using current year monies, basically hiding the insolvency by robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Charge #3 refers to creating debt, something prohibited by the State Constitution.  Oklahoma is a balanced budget state.

Charge #4 refers to the annual duty of the local presiding District judge to set the daily charge for incarcerated inmates.   The rate is supposed to be set using actual direct costs of running the jail and divided by the number of  \housed inmate days.  Judge Elliot accused Whetsel of lying to him on these costs since 2002.  Whetsel had requested $48.05 per day in February but hearings into the issue uncovered massive irregularities.  Last year’s incarceration rate was $44.51 per day, billed directly to inmates to be paid once they were released from custody.

During the Friday court hearing on the daily incarceration rate the judge repeatedly called the sheriff department’s finance officer a liar, saying “I don’t believe anything you are saying.”   At issue were three separate submissions of figures for running the jail, all of which were different.  The judge admonished a very shaken Capt. Jon Skuta for submitting and certifying under oath three separate versions of financial data, two of which had to be lies according to the judge.

At an earlier hearing it was found that indirect costs such as travel and training for deputies, public defender’s staff, juvenile justice workers, and court clerk employees, were incorporated into the direct costs of running the jail and offsets from inmate phone call contracts and sales from the commissary were not used to offset the expenses.  Over one third of the public defender’s budget was added to the direct overhead despite the public defender’s office having a separate budget! Then there was state funded Oklahoma County Community Sentencing Program which had a large portion of its annual budget listed on Whetsel’s direct overhead costs for the jail. The latest sheriff department request for the daily incarceration rate was $40.04 per day.

Local bail bondsmen had put together around 200 pages of data showing that Sheriff Whetsel had been lying about the actual numbers of inmates housed at the jail, including weekend inmates that were present starting on Friday night and home by Sunday night being included as being present for the entire week.  Also included were “walk through”, where a bondsman literally walked the arrestee through the booking process and the person was released a half hour later.

Even more concerning was a huge list of inmates that in the word of Judge Elliot, were held illegally after bail bond had been properly posted, days in some cases, all in an effort to inflate the daily inmate numbers so as to generate more income for the Sheriff department.  These inmates were charged $44.51 per day for each day that they were held, effectively holding them illegally and running up the charges they must pay.

At the end of the hearing the judge stunned the courtroom by setting the daily incarceration rate at$32.00 per day as that was the rate that Whetsel said he would keep state prisoners for the DOC.
Charge #5 covers slush funds that Whetsel controls such as the income from a very profitable inmate phone system that charges insane amounts per minute, the commissary sales to inmates, fee producing accounts such as serving papers or subpoenas.  Also included are donations and gifts to the program, some amounting to almost a quarter million dollars as well as any grant money coming in.

Charge #6 covers the expenditure of those funds acquired in Charge #5.

Charge #7 is where it is getting interesting.    Whether reserve deputy commissions were influenced by campaign donations or by donations to the sheriff department.  Eli Jarjoura comes to mind, the Middle Eastern man that Whetsel allowed to infiltrate the reserve deputy program after the payment of almost a quarter million dollars in donations.    Jarjoura had a felony arrest record at the time of his application to the CLEET program and evidence of a felony arrest was still present on the court network until someone started asking questions about the arrest.     A subsequent lawsuit against four individuals including a leader of the Sooner Tea Party, a former sheriff candidate, and a bail bondsman revealed that Jarjoura had lied on his application to the sheriff’s office.    The lawsuit was eventually dismissed after Eli Jarjoura refused to respond to requests for discovery in the case and stopped showing up at court hearings.

The end result of Whetsel’s inflated jail overhead has been the saddling of released inmates with thousands of dollars in unnecessary fees that seem insurmountable to a newly released inmate who must immediately gain employment to pay back these fees or face being arrested for unpaid court fines and fees.  Meanwhile Sheriff Whetsel can plow millions into useless programs such as county patrolling or civil asset forfeiture efforts out on the interstates and state highways.

Whetsel also uses the inflated inmate count to bolster his claim that the jail is overcrowded so he can spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars on a new jail.

But the immediate end result is a 37% slash in the daily incarceration rate.  If Whetsel’s claims of a $50,000 loss each month are true then his finances are really in trouble.  Perhaps so much that Whetsel will have to resort to doing his state mandated duties of maintaining a jail, transporting prisoners to court, and providing court house security.  And drop the SWAT team, the dozens of unneeded programs, and keep just enough vehicles for official use instead of paying millions and millions of dollars per year for deputies to drive a squad car home.  Those deputies would then find themselves like the rest of us, paying their own gas and overhead on a car to get to work each day.