Sheriff: Grand jury needed to unravel murky money trail

Friday, November 18, 2005

Profits from the sale of snacks and phone calls from Mississippi County inmates are apparently missing. But whether those dollars were stolen or just jumbled up in bookkeeping mistakes could become the subject of a grand jury investigation.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol spent most of this year investigating the losses, Sheriff Keith Moore said. The Mississippi County Commission approved $5,000 for the cost of a grand jury in September, Moore said, but Circuit Judge David Dolan has yet to issue an order convening it.

The investigation stems from a state audit that shows roughly $23,000 -- and perhaps much more -- vanished from accounts holding the proceeds of sales to inmates.

The audit also questioned the account that tracks money family and friends give the jail so inmates can make those purchases.

In her regular audit of all Mississippi County books, State Auditor Claire McCas-kill found problems with the commissary fund, where the sales are recorded, and the inmate accounts, where money on hand for inmates is stored.

For example, the commissary fund showed a shortage of $40,925 on Dec. 31, 2004. But some $17,221 had apparently not been transferred from the inmate bank account to the commissary account, the audit said.

Even allowing for that bookkeeping error, the commissary fund was more than $23,000 short.

In a single month -- December 2003 -- family and friends deposited $12,550 on behalf of inmates. Jail books showed $11,700 was distributed that month, but only $7,500 actually made it to the bank.

Those kinds of problems create questions about whether money is being skimmed, sheriff Keith Moore said.,

"If somebody's guilty and they've done something, I want it charged," Moore said. "I know there is something wrong."

Until early last year, inmates were issued cash, which they used to make the purchases. The system has been changed, so now all inmate purchases are charged against their account balances with no cash circulating in the jail.

At times, cash collected from sales of items to inmates would be left unattended in an unlocked office while the door was open, auditors reported.

Moore was chief deputy during the time covered by the inquiry. Former jail administrator Don Chance, who left his job in December, was Moore's opponent in the 2004 Democratic primary for sheriff. The Highway Patrol investigated to avoid any conflict of interest.

That political race is driving the investigation, Chance said. There has been no proof that any large sums were actually stolen, he said.

"I'm not saying there wasn't pilferage," he said. But the main part of the shortage stems from the telephone system, where computer foul-ups could have resulted in phantom charges, he said.

Inmates typically pay much more for telephone calls than the general public. The extra profits are split with the jail. The county got 30 percent of the money collected at the Mississippi County jail for telephone calls, with 70 percent going to the telephone provider.

Shortly after Chance's election defeat, the commissary fund was far out of balance. The fund held $399 on Dec. 31, 2004, auditors reported. But the fund owed the telephone company $13,335 and the county general fund $26,429.

And while $67,509 was spent on snack inventory over three years, the receipts for the sale of those items seems to have a severe shortfall.

The audit also showed that commissary fund bank deposits decreased from 2002 to 2004. The jail regularly houses 90 to 100 inmates, Moore said.

The former sheriff, Larry Turley, said he had little involvement in jail operations. Chance was hired by the county commission when a new jail opened in 1999, he said.

Accusations that he pocketed large sums are being circulated by his political enemies, Chance said. "I personally never dealt with any money," he said. "I had no knowledge of what took place."

Chance added that he has cooperated fully with the patrol's investigation and has not hired a lawyer. "I personally believe it is being pursued for political reasons," he said. "But I have no intention of running for office in this or any county."

The current system is showing a strong profit, Moore noted, while it regularly lost money under Chance's direction. "If you compare what is going on now to when I got into office, you can really see something."

The decision to fund a grand jury investigation wasn't motivated by politics, presiding commissioner Jim Blumenberg said. "If you are missing funds, you are missing funds. We want to know who was responsible."

Former sheriff Turley said using a grand jury to investigate is a bad idea. A grand jury is a secret proceeding and rules of evidence are looser than in a courtroom.

"If they have got a case it would seem like they would have done filed it to me," he said.

Prosecuting Attorney Darren Cann could not be reached for comment. Dolan, the presiding judge of the circuit, did not return a call for comment on the grand jury.

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