A Pensacola citizen has alleged that Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan has been misusing public dollars, prompting the State Attorney’s office to take a closer look at donations the Sheriff’s Office has made to local groups.
In Florida, assets seized by law enforcement agencies as the result of criminal activity are placed in Law Enforcement Trust, or LET, funds. State law limits how those dollars can be spent, stating that the funds may only be used for school resource officer, crime prevention, safe neighborhood, drug abuse education, drug prevention programs or “such other law enforcement purposes as the board of county commissioners … deems appropriate.” While LET Fund dollars can’t be used to pay salaries or cover normal operating expenses, the money can be used to help fund protracted or complex investigations, purchase equipment, or to provide matching funds for federal grants, among other purposes.
Yet records obtained by The Pulse show that Morgan’s office has used LET Fund dollars to make charitable donations to dozens of Pensacola-area organizations, including many which have no apparent law enforcement purposes. Over the past seven years, Morgan’s office has made more than $1.3 million in donations to area organizations, ranging from $25 to an American Legion post to $50,000 to Gulf Coast Kid’s House. Morgan has also given money to churches, schools, high school athletic programs, and even to sponsor golf tournaments and other events.
Records show that the total amount of the donations, which audit records classify as “aid to private organizations,” has increased each year, going from $41,710 in fiscal year 2010 to $292,500 in fiscal year 2015. Morgan’s office has made $398,970 in donations so far in fiscal year 2016, which began last October.
Donations to religious groups raise questions
Some of the public dollars have even been given to churches and other religious organizations. Since December 2015, Morgan has given more than $20,000 in LET Fund money to organizations including Epps Christian Center, West Pensacola Baptist Church, New World Believers, and Rags to Riches Ministries.
Florida’s state constitution prohibits public money from being used to support church activities: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”
In the past, courts have held that while government funds can’t be used to support “inherently religious” activities, they can be provided in support of non-religious social services and programs. It’s not immediately clear how the religious groups which received public dollars from Morgan’s office used the money.
State Attorney’s office investigating
Area resident Clark Yates believes that Morgan’s donations are clearly illegal. Yates met with investigators from State Attorney Bill Eddins’ office on June 7 and provided them with records of Morgan’s LET Fund donations.
“I really think that it’s a big deal,” said Yates, a former corrections officer. “If you look at the statute, clearly in my opinion it defines what the money should be spent for. I think it’s wrong.” Yates supports and has contributed financially to the campaign of Morgan’s opponent Ron McNesby.
Officials said Tuesday that while a formal investigation has not been opened, investigators are reviewing the circumstances surrounding the donations.
County officials confirmed Wednesday that the State Attorney’s office has asked them to turn over records related to the Law Enforcement Trust Fund, which spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka said the county was “working diligently” to provide.
Morgan, staff defend donations
Morgan’s office did not respond to a request to comment for this story, but he hasn’t been shy about defending the donations his office has made. “During my administration we have given back over a million dollars to our community from drug forfeiture funds,” Morgan said at a candidate forum held in July.
Eric Haines, Morgan’s chief deputy, has also defended the sheriff’s authority to spend LET Fund dollars as he sees fit.
“The law is so vague and up to the discretion of the sheriff,” Haines said during a radio interview in May. “The sheriff could literally take out a million dollar commercial on WCOA … he could literally pay a million dollars for this show, right now, and we could just at the end of it say, ‘Oh, hey everybody, don’t use drugs,’ and cut the check.”
Political opponents react
Ron McNesby served as Sheriff from 2000 to 2008 and is seeking the office again this year.
“As I read the law, that money’s supposed to go to training, to resources, to making the community safe,” said McNesby. “You have to be truthful and you have to obey the law. And I don’t think he’s done that.”
“I simply view this as him taking advantage of the office,” said McNesby.
Asked if he ever donated LET Fund money in a similar way as sheriff, McNesby said that he couldn’t recall after eight years. A review of records shows that, on average, the Sheriff’s Office donated about $22,000 a year to non-profit organizations during McNesby’s tenure. Morgan has donated an average of more than $174,000 a year to area organizations during his time in office.
John Johnson, another candidate for sheriff, says he’s been looking into these issues for six months.
“Because of these donations, a lot of nice people got public money, but now to accomplish his law enforcement mission he’s got to take more money from taxpayers,” said Johnson, who said Wednesday that Morgan’s office should have used the LET Fund money for training and other law enforcement purposes.
Johnson says that he would use the money differently if elected. “In good conscience, I could not take money that’s allocated to make Escambia County a safer place and give it instead to hand-picked groups,” he said.
Regardless of the outcome of the State Attorney’s inquiry, the ultimate decision will likely rest with voters.
“If people aren’t happy with how the sheriff is spending money out of that fund, they can vote him out of office,” said Johnson. “And I think that is ultimately what will happen.”