County Attorney Y. Soo Jo said the county ordinance establishing the fund requires all spending from it to benefit “the welfare of persons who are committed to the jail.”
“There’s no excuse for this,” Ellis said. “This isn’t ‘Oh, somebody made a mistake.’”
Labat has been under fire for other issues at the jail as well, including chronic overcrowding and inmate deaths.
On Sept. 13, 2022, Lashawn Thompson, a 35-year-old man, died in one of the jail’s mental health cells after being held for three months on a misdemeanor charge. He was found covered in bedbugs. The county has since settled with Thompson’s family for $4 million, but a federal investigation into the jail has been opened related to his death.
Thompson was one of 64 inmates who died in county custody between 2009 and October 2022, the most of any Georgia jail during that time. Ten inmates have died in the past year.
Ellis said he asked Labat for information on fund spending Oct. 9, but didn’t get it until Oct. 30.
“You look at the detail on these expenditures — I mean, clearly they’re not proper,” he said.
No sheriff’s representative was present to speak at Wednesday’s commission meeting. But in a statement issued Wednesday evening, the Sheriff’s Office said when “confusion” over the expenditures was discovered, the sheriff’s office immediately took several actions, including: firing the fund administrator; changing signature approval for spending; adopting best practices for procurement; and terminating contracts “not compliant with the use of funds.”
“All funds allocated from the Inmate Welfare Fund were expenses in the Sheriff’s Office, although some expenditures were assigned to the wrong fund,” Labat wrote in the cover letter to the report. “I am conducting additional review of this matter and will make adjustments, if needed.”
The information from the sheriff’s office fills about 25 pages, covering expenditures from Jan. 14, 2021, to Aug. 25, 2023.
Ellis said he calculated the fund’s income and outflow from Labat’s reports and “sources other than our sheriff.” In 2020, the year before Labat took office, the fund held $10.36 million and paid out $1.77 million, he said. Jail commissary sales and inmate telephone charges pay for the Inmate Welfare Fund, Ellis said.
The county puts $188.7 million a year into the sheriff’s office, an increase of 53% since 2021, Ellis said. And Labat has frequently appeared before commissioners to ask for more.
“This has significant impact on all our taxpayers,” Ellis said.
This spring, the sheriff asked for funds to buy mail scanners, surveillance cameras and more. He requested the money as an emergency appropriation after relatives of a deceased inmate sued the county.
On Sept. 13, 2022, Lashawn Thompson, a 35-year-old man, died in one of the jail’s mental health cells after being held for three months on a misdemeanor charge. His family alleges in a lawsuit that he died covered in bedbugs and that jail staff ignored his deteriorating health.
The county has since settled with Thompson’s family for $4 million, but a federal investigation into the jail has been opened related to his death.
Thompson was one of 64 inmates who died in the Fulton jail between 2009 and October 2022, the most of any Georgia jail during that time. Ten inmates have died in the past year.
Spending from the Inmate Welfare Fund is supposed to be controlled by a committee of the sheriff, chief jailer, and chair of the county commission; but apparently neither Labat nor Commission Chair Robb Pitts knew that, Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. said.
“Whose fault is that?” he said.
Ellis accused Labat of a consistent lack of transparency on sheriff’s office finances, hindering commissioners from making informed decisions when Labat asks for more money. He called first for an audit of all spending from the fund by the county’s internal audit staff, and said all spending from the Inmate Welfare Fund should be suspended until an audit is done and clear spending policies are established.
Pitts said he had not yet seen the report but wanted to go through it personally, and approved of an audit.
“If there’s one iota of truth to what you’ve said today, this does not look good,” he told Ellis.
Pitts agreed no more money should be spent from the fund until an audit is done — though he favored a forensic audit from an outside firm.
Arrington countered that it would be a “huge mistake” to stop all spending from the fund until an audit is complete: “We certainly don’t need to punish the inmates for this.”
Commissioner Natalie Hall said Labat contacted county finance officials and asked for an audit himself. PJC Group is already performing an annual general audit of the sheriff’s office, and an internal review is happening too, she said.
Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman said Labat bears ultimate responsibility for spending from his office, and asked for him to replenish the fund somehow. It sends a bad message to see such spending while county departments are being asked to cut their budget requests, she said.