A $130,000 billboard contract signed by Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan ends just nine days before the August 30 primary election in which Morgan is up for reelection, records obtained by The Pulse show.
The contract, with Lamar Advertising, was signed in February, covering placements on 114 billboards throughout Escambia County. Most of the billboards included in the contract are of the traditional print variety, while about 15% of the billboards are digital displays, where the advertisement can be easily changed or updated.
“Sheriff Morgan says lock your door, keep it yours,” read the print billboards. “Suspicious activity? Dial 911.” A photograph of Morgan occupies about 25% of the billboard print. The digital billboards have been used to display wanted posters and amber alerts as well as a photograph of a recent drug bust featuring Morgan. The Sheriff’s Office has not yet provided records requested by The Pulse documenting the images displayed on the digital billboards.
Public purpose or campaign ads?
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, but representatives have said that the bulk of the billboards are part of an ongoing campaign to reduce vehicular burglaries. “The ‘Lock It or Lose It’ campaign has been going on for almost a year,” wrote Chief Deputy Eric Haines in a post to social media, who noted the campaign has also included press releases, YouTube videos, and air fresheners, among other materials.
Morgan’s opponents, on the other hand, argue that the billboards are thinly-veiled campaign advertisements purchased using public money.
“Given the fact that Morgan’s own campaign literature says he reduced vehicular burglaries, that leads me to believe that the use of $130,000 of taxpayer funds is nothing more than an attempt to use public money to influence voters,” said John Johnson, a law enforcement veteran who is challenging Morgan in this year’s election. A campaign palm card released by Morgan’s campaign earlier this year credited the “Lock It or Lose It” campaign with reducing burglaries “by two thirds.”
“David Morgan is more concerned with his pubic image and his political standing than he is with the citizens of Escambia County and their safety,” Johnson said.
Retired Escambia County deputy Jay Camac, who obtained the billboard records through a public records request, agrees. “Morgan is using this money, in my opinion, to buy votes,” said Camac, who is supporting Johnson for sheriff. “It’s a way to fund his campaign without having to use the funds in his campaign.”
Morgan’s office declined to say whether or not similar billboards had been purchased in the past, but Ron McNesby — the man who preceded Morgan as sheriff and who is now looking to retake the position — said that the billboards are unprecedented. “No sheriff has done this,” said McNesby. “I have never and will never spend taxpayer dollars to put my face on anything.”
McNesby accused Morgan of taking advantage of his position as sheriff. “I believe what he’s done is he’s bilked the taxpayers out of money for his campaign,” said McNesby. “There are many other things this money could have been used for. He probably could have hired three or four deputies for that cost.”
It’s unclear where the funding for the billboards is coming from. Records obtained by The Pulse show that the first invoice under the contract, totaling $22,960, was paid from the office’s general fund, specifically from public information and promotional activities accounts. Chief Deputy Haines, however, has said that the billboards are being funded by Law Enforcement Trust Fund dollars. “All the money spent on the billboards are from seized drug money,” wrote Haines in a post to social media. “Not one taxpayer dollar will be spent on them.”
State law allows law enforcement agencies to seize money and other contraband that has been used in the commissions of felonies. The cash or proceeds from the sale of seized items then funnel into a Law Enforcement Trust Fund, or LETF, where the money can be used for a broad variety of purposes. While the money in LETFs does not come from tax dollars, it is still considered public money.