Fulton commissioners clash over Sheriff Labat’s spending

A new report presented to the commission raised new questions about county oversight of sheriff’s contracts
Sheriff Patrick Labat talks at an editorial board meeting in Atlanta on Wednesday, February 21, 2024. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer /

Credit: Steve Schaefer /

Sheriff Patrick Labat talks at an editorial board meeting in Atlanta on Wednesday, February 21, 2024. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat’s use of tax dollars faced fresh scrutiny on Wednesday as the county commission again voiced concerns following the release of a review of sheriff’s department contacts and other spending.

The commission on Wednesday heard public testimony from an accounting firm hired for the review, which also looked District Attorney Fani Willis’s spending. The report, dated April 4, identified several of the sheriff office’s “high-risk activities.” They include:

  • The use of an American Express Black Card, which has unlimited purchasing ability with limited county oversight.
  • Labat’s decision to overrule the county’s recommendation for the jail’s food service provider, instead opting for another vendor at a higher cost.
  • Labat’s role as sole decision maker regarding spending from the inmate welfare fund, a pool of money funded with revenue generated from jail commissary funds and inmate telephone calls.
  • A multi-million dollar contract with jail monitoring company Talitrix for biometric wristbands meant to track the health of Fulton County jail inmates. The funding for the contract was rescinded by the commission last year after the company underdelivered on its promise.

The findings fuel ongoing tensions between Labat and several commissioners who have accused the first-term sheriff of misspending county funds with little accountability. Georgia state law allows sheriffs and other constitutional officers, including district attorneys, to enter contracts outside the typical approval process involving oversight by county commissions. Typically, Fulton purchases are made through the county’s procurement department, which adheres to a strict set of rules and seeks bids from multiple vendors before recommending a decision.

“This is a significant area of financial and reputational risk for the County and heightens the potential for improper or even illegal activities related to procurement and the use of public funds,” the report, written by national accounting firm Cherry Bekaert, read.

Labat’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The report identified several possible solutions, ranging from forming a committee to encourage use of the county’s more rigorous procurement process among constitutional officers to lobbying the Georgia state legislature to change state law.

“There’s got to be transparency when it comes to contracting and procurement,” Commissioner Bob Ellis said.

Over the past year, Labat’s spending has become a flashpoint for the commission. In November, the commission suspended use of the county’s inmate welfare fund after Ellis discovered the sheriff’s office had used the money for promotional events, jugglers, consultants and more than $1 million on vehicles, including an $84,000 Chevrolet Tahoe driven by Labat.

In October, the Fulton County Commission voted to rescind $2.1 million it had allocated for the sheriff’s contract with Talitrix. The commission had originally approved Labat’s emergency request in April, but were alarmed to learn the sheriff had a previous undisclosed contract with the company and just 15 of 1,000 wristbands earmarked by the contract were in use. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Labat had received roughly $30,000 in campaign contributions from the company and its affiliates.

And just last month, commissioners refused to authorize two spending requests from Labat, citing previous questions about the sheriff’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

The new report grew out of the work of a county audit committee of which Ellis and Commission Chairman Robb Pitts are members, according to county auditor Anthony Nicks. In addition to scrutinizing the sheriff’s spending, the report also mentioned DA Willis’s increased use of “prosecutorial discretion” to make purchases outside of the county’s procurement process. Often used to quickly secure funds for trial expenses such as expert witnesses, the report found Willis’s office has used prosecutorial discretion to purchase gun holsters for agents and office supplies. While not “high-risk” on its face, the report’s authors cautioned against increased reliance on this power.

“Based on discussions with the District Attorney’s Office, the use of prosecutorial discretion has been extended to the purchasing of goods and services that in all likelihood could have been planned for in advance,” the report reads.

In a statement from Willis, provided by her office’s spokesman Jeff DeSantis, the DA characterized the review as a “partisan attack,” specifically mentioning Ellis, a Republican, who she said had previously denied the DA’s office necessary equipment such as bulletproof vests for investigators.

“Georgia law is clear – District Attorneys are state constitutional officers who have full discretion to use their budgets to fulfill their duty to protect their communities. I use my authority to fulfill my duty, which includes ensuring that our sworn law enforcement officers have equipment like gun holsters,” the statement said.

At the meeting Wednesday, several commissioners expressed their support for Labat and Willis. Fulton Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr., at times yelling, accused the report of “targeting.” Commissioner Dana Barrett said the report was biased because it did not review all of the county’s constitutional officers, which also include the tax commissioner and clerk of courts.

“Should we have not looked at others?” Barrett said.

Fulton County Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman asked the presenters if a county and government the size of Fulton should have more or fewer financial controls than it does; she thinks it’s fair to say there should be more. Elected officials, whether constitutional officers or not, are stewards of tax dollars and should be open to self-imposed fail-safes, she said.

“Nobody is accusing anybody of anything improper,” Abdur-Rahman said. “But we have to be open to a process that works — and a transparent process,”

--Staff Writer Jim Gaines contributed reporting for this story.