In late 2014, around the same time the Mobile County Commission made an unprecedented request for details regarding the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) multiple discretionary funds, the office was completing construction of a $714,000 storage building on Howell’s Ferry Road.
Sheriff Sam Cochran’s discretionary funds, which are not allocated through the Commission or the county’s general fund, paid for the building’s construction. The MCSO confirmed this week that the discretionary nature of the fund allowed the contract to be awarded without bidding out the project.
A review of the contract confirms the largest portion, nearly $385,000, was awarded to Middleton Construction Company — owned and operated by Cochran associate Rob Middleton. Middleton is also one of the volunteer pilots reportedly qualified to operate the department’s plane, which was quietly purchased for $340,000 in 2012 with discretionary funding as well.
According to MCSO spokesperson Lori Myles, the prefabricated steel storage building is used to house various equipment owned by the department, including SWAT vehicles, boats and electronic signage. It also houses property seized by the MCSO that may be subject to court proceedings.
“We saved up some discretionary funds over a few years and finally made the expenditure,” Cochran said. “My staff, before they purchase something, they check prices with different people, whether it’s equipment or any number of things. [My staff] knew either the county had done business with those contractors or [the contractors] had good reputations in the community.”
The sheriff’s staff awarded contracts to 10 separate vendors for the storage building, but Middleton Construction’s was by far the largest — worth more than the next four most-expensive contracts combined. However, like Cochran, Middleton said he never had any discussions with the sheriff about securing the contract.
“We were asked for a price initially, I can’t remember by whom,” said Middleton, who described Cochran as a friend. “I want to say it was the lady who had the building contract. We sent her a price. That was forwarded to the sheriff’s office and they sent us a contract.”
The steel storage building, however, is not the first project for which Middleton has been contracted by Cochran’s office. In 2012, the Baldwin Mining Company — another company owned in part by Middleton — was hired by MCSO to do “prep work for the installation of a barricade” and was paid around $8,300. On each of the related contracts and emails, Middleton was listed as the primary point of contact.
Again, Cochran said he wasn’t involved with selecting the contractors.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t have any involvement with him, not that I wouldn’t have — he’s a reputable businessman and an associate of mine, as are probably 100 other contractor-type people,” Cochran explained. “He’s reputable. They selected him, and he got the job done.”
In comparison, Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack said in spite of the fact his discretionary funds are not subject to state bid laws, his department still seeks bids on all capital projects, whether or not they are paid using discretionary funds.
“If we’re replacing carpet or something smaller, we basically do an informal bid process,” he said. “We’re going to get three quotes, but if we’re doing a major construction project — like if we’re building a steel building — then we do put that out to bid.”
As an example, Mack said his office competitively bid a $300,000 vehicle maintenance facility in Robertsdale that was paid for with discretionary funds.
Though he admitted smaller, individuals purchases like computers may be sole-source, Mack said his office takes additional steps to make sure there are no conflicts of interest in their discretionary spending.
“Oh yes, ethics law still applies,” he said. “Even though you may not be bidding it out, there’s still state ethics laws in effect and things of that nature. That’s why we always bid them out on the big projects.”
The MCSO receives discretionary revenue from several sources but the most lucrative is the Law Enforcement Fund, generated from the sale of goods and services to inmates in the Mobile County Metro Jail.
Other sources of discretionary revenue include pistol-permit fees, work-release profits, gaming (bingo) enforcement funds, funeral-escort funds and property forfeitures. However, getting an exact dollar figure on these accounts can be tricky.
In August 2014, when County Administrator John Pafenbach requested the projected revenues and expenditures for FY 2015, it took almost two months for Cochran’s office to respond.
When it did, estimates of discretionary revenue were accompanied by a memo explaining why they would only grant part of the county’s request.
Citing state law and Attorney General opinions, the memo stated, “The Sheriff only has to provide to the County Commission an estimate of the amount he will be receiving under the above referenced funds. The Sheriff does not have to send to the County Commission an estimate of his specific expenditures of these funds. Also, the County Commission may not reduce the amount of the Sheriff’s budget by the amount he receives from these funds.”
According to the estimates, the MCSO’s Law Enforcement Fund was estimated to generate around $670,000 this year. The pistol-permit fund was estimated to bring in roughly $631,000.
According to MCSO correspondence with the county, revenues from the gaming enforcement fund have “declined substantially since the establishment of casinos in Mississippi.”
The Sheriff’s Office voluntarily disclosed that the gaming enforcement fund’s expenditures have exceeded its current revenues, but claimed it maintained a $15,000 balance in 2014.
The MCSO also reported an estimate of the revenues generated from inmate work-release jobs was not available because it changes depending on the number of employable inmates and the number of court orders required to sentence a prisoner to perform manual labor. At the beginning of FY 2015, the program listed a fund balance of $82,000.
Funeral-escort funds were projected to bring in $93,000 over the last year, but the MCSO said more than half of that goes back to the county to reimburse the overtime, fringe benefits and fuel consumed in the process. Last year, MCSO used $65,400 from the funeral-escort fund to purchase new vehicles and equipment.
As for state and federal property forfeitures, no estimate was provided as “both can vary considerably each year.” In 2014, Cochran told Lagniappe drug-related property seizures account for $100,000 to $500,000 annually.