Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Whistle-blowing blog in Morgan County, AL, has helped bring down Sheriff Ana Franklin, who has a federal lawsuit and FBI investigation hot on her trail


Ana Franklin
An Alabama sheriff, with an apparent tendency to violate the public trust, has announced she is not running for re-election. The public can thank a small-town blog for that, and it's another example of the Web press' power in the Heart of Dixie, whether the site is located in Birmingham or a north Alabama burg of fewer than 15,000 people.

Legal Schnauzer has helped bring down or neuter a number of prominent political figures, including "Luv Guv" Robert Bentley,  Bentley aide Rebecca Caldwell Mason, U.S. Sen. Luther Strange, and federal judges Mark Fuller and Bill Pryor. But we can't take any credit for the exit of Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin, the only female sheriff in the state. All of the credit for that goes to morgancountywhistleblower.com, a blog published by Glenda Lockhart, of Hartselle.

Ana Franklin was elected sheriff of Morgan County in 2010 and soon developed a reputation for playing fast and loose with public funds and playing rough with critics of her office. One of those critics was Glenda Lockhart, and her persistent reporting on Franklin's dubious actions led to a recent announcement that Franklin would not stand for re-election when her term expires in 2019. From an al.com report on Franklin's decision to step down:

Ana Franklin, the only woman in Alabama currently serving as a county's top cop, is not running for re-election.

Franklin was first elected Morgan County Sheriff in 2010, taking office the following January. She plans to serve the remainder of her second term, which ends in January 2019.

"Today is a difficult day for me and comes only after endless hours of painful, deliberate thought and constant prayer over this decision," Franklin said in a video message posted to her Facebook page today. I have decided that I will not be seeking a third term as your sheriff.

"I am truly honored and blessed to have been given this opportunity to serve the people of my county," Franklin continued. "I love Morgan County and the people I work with. I love the office of sheriff and what that office means to the people."

How nasty has the environment become in Morgan County? As al.com notes, even The New York Times has taken notice, with a piece last December about a federal investigation that revolves around Franklin:

Franklin's seven years in office haven't come without controversy. Most notably, Franklin was found in contempt of court last year because she loaned $150,000 of the jail's inmate feeding funds to a crooked used car lot. She's the subject of a federal investigation, as reported recently in The New York Times. The sheriff and her office have been blasted by the local Morgan County Whistleblower blog.

How did Franklin draw Lockhart's attention and become the primary focus at one of the state's best-known investigative blogs? The New York Times explains:

Ms. Lockhart first took an interest in the sheriff after deputies came to her rural home in July 2011 to investigate a supposed disturbance. What happened next is in dispute, but she and her husband, Harold Lockhart, say the officers found nothing but refused to leave when asked.

Deputies arrested the couple after Mr. Lockhart, a retired military police officer, said he had had enough and was calling his lawyer. The Lockharts successfully sued the sheriff for false arrest. And while the sheriff was not present for the arrest and later said she knew nothing about it, Ms. Lockhart did not forget.

Franklin's questionable handling of public funds soon surfaced, and Lockhart and her blog were there to make sure the public knew about it:

There was, however, more than enough evidence to link the sheriff to Priceville Partners L.L.C., a get-rich-quick scheme that spread a toxic cloud over the business community.

A used-car dealership offering title loans, Priceville Partners had begun opening branches around the county, and investors were welcome. Ordinarily, law officers might investigate rather than invest in a business co-owned by the likes of Greg Steenson, who had done prison time for a multimillion-dollar check-kiting scheme. But several officers from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, along with Morgan County deputies, became financially involved, records show. One agent texted another asking if he wanted a one-month $7,000 profit on a $10,000 investment. Sheriff Franklin’s father worked there; her daughter did the bookkeeping.

The sheriff invested $150,000. She would later say that she had not known Mr. Steenson was a co-owner, even though her daughter said that was clear from her first day on the job.

Sheriff Franklin eventually admitted the money had been withdrawn from an account earmarked for feeding inmates.

In 2016, Franklin chose to launch an under-handed attack on the Lockharts -- and it might have proven to be the sheriff's undoing:

In October last year [2016], armed with a warrant, the sheriff’s drug task force seized Ms. Lockhart’s computers and electronic devices, court records show. In preparing for the raid, the sheriff hired an unusual spy — Ms. Lockhart’s 19-year-old grandson, Daniel Lockhart, who aspired to work in law enforcement.

Glenda Lockhart
Mr. Lockhart said the sheriff’s technology expert had instructed him on how to plant spyware. The raid took place about a week after he said he installed the software.
Mr. Lockhart had been living with his grandparents and working in their business. He gained access to the office after hours, he said, by telling Ms. Lockhart that his girlfriend needed an office computer for homework. Ms. Lockhart said she later discovered the spyware on her home computer as well and took it to the F.B.I., which has retained it.

Sheriff Franklin admits to hiring the grandson, but denies that she or anyone in her office asked him to install spyware. “We have absolute proof, ” Mr. Lovelace, the sheriff’s lawyer, wrote to The Times. He produced an analysis of Ms. Lockhart’s business computers by a firm he hired that, he said, found no spyware. Several parts of that report were omitted, he said, because of a continuing criminal investigation that he was not at liberty to describe.

The sheriff’s denial is undercut by four people who told The Times separately that they had knowledge that the sheriff’s office taught Mr. Lockhart how to install the spyware. Among them was Ricky Brewer, the sheriff’s former technology officer, who said he told the F.B.I. that his replacement acknowledged giving the grandson the software.

The sheriff's problems, even if she steps down as announced, might just be getting started. From The New York Times:

Here in Morgan County, Ms. Lockhart has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Sheriff Franklin of violating her right to free speech, invading her privacy and slandering her, charges the sheriff denies. Ms. Lockhart’s computers, containing vital company records, were returned only after a court hearing.

Glenda Lockhart's small-town blog keeps marching along. Meanwhile, Sheriff Franklin is headed out the door, with a federal lawsuit, an FBI investigation, and all sorts of unpleasantness on her tail.

No comments: