Auditors find no evidence of embezzlement from Manatee jail's inmate fund

Getting an attorney’s opinion is the next step in a probe of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

R.B. “Chips” Shore, Manatee County clerk of courts, announced Wednesday that while “the evidence does not exist to support the allegations regarding the embezzlement of money from the inmate commissary fund,” legal interpretation is needed before the final report can be drafted.

The fund is under investigation after Shore received a letter from Charles Smith, chairman of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, suggesting wrongdoing at the sheriff’s office, including possible embezzlement of the fund.

“While I was confident there was no embezzlement, I wanted the citizens to be assured of it as well,” said Sheriff Brad Steube.

Because the sheriff’s office does not fall under the clerk’s jurisdiction, Sheriff Brad Steube had to grant permission for the audit.

“The problem we’ve run into is the statutes are totally vague,” Shore said. “One statute says one thing and another says another. We’re trying to make an interpretation of the where the expenses fit.”

With the legal opinion, Shore and the audit team will be able to compile a more accurate and in-depth report to relay to the sheriff’s office.

“We’ll be working with the sheriff to recommend some changes in procedures,” he said.

Shore initially stated the report would be released May 30. However, Shore said conferring with an attorney is expected to delay the report no later than June 30.

“I was trying to get this out in a hurry and it just didn’t work,” Shore said. “We’ve had to do so much research - cross every ‘T’ and dot every ‘I’ - because this will be scrutinized and we want to make sure everything is right.”

Steube agreed to the audit after an internal investigation found two former high-ranking officials at the jail farm had misused county property and allowed colleagues to do the same. The now-retired deputies, were cited for “conduct unbecoming” to their positions. However, allegations of “unlawful conduct” were not sustained, and the state attorney’s office did not prosecute.

Since the probe began April 5, the audit team of five individuals have reviewed approximately 3,000 transactions and 12,000 pieces of other documentation, Shore said.

Steube said the inmate commissary fund, established by statute, “can be established for inmate welfare.” Steube said there are two divisions of the commissary fund.

One is the money belonging to individual inmates. When arrested, any money in possession of the inmate is deposited into their personal account. The inmates are given what Steube compared to debit cards, which can be used to purchase commissary items such as candy bars. Inmates’ families and friends can add money to their personal accounts.

The other is an overall, public fund from which all inmates reap benefits. It is funded through profits made by selling products produced or manufactured by the inmates such as plants and picnic tables, Steube said. Other funding comes from a percentage of fees charged when inmates make collect calls outside of the jail, he said.

Steube said the commissary fund is used to pay for items needed to train inmates in certain trades or provide basic necessities.

For example, Steube said if a sheriff’s car is in a minor crash, inmates go to the auto body shop where they are taught mechanics. If a part is needed, the commissary fund pays for it so inmates can have the hands-on experience of repairing the automobile and learning the trade, Steube said.

The commissary fund is also used on jail farm expenses, Steube said.

“All food, we either grow or manufacture ourselves,” Steube said. “Inmates work on the vegetable farm, learning that trade, learning to plant, learning to harvest. We’re using the vegetables to feed prisoners, Anything we’re doing involved in that can be paid for by the commissary fund because it is teaching or benefitting inmates.”

Shore said after the probe’s completion, the team will then look into a sample of inmates’ personal accounts.

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