COVINGTON, Ga. – Saying that the “truth is a nugget to trust,” Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown sat down with The Covington News Thursday morning to set the record straight and address concerns about his recent salary and expense allowance increases. He also opened his office’s purchasing card records for inspection.
Brown sought to clarify questions about his use of a county P-card and his salary and expense allowance increases that were raised by a story in The News two weeks ago. Brown said Thursday he was never trying to avoid any scrutiny.
“There was no intent. I wasn’t trying to hide anything,” he said. “I, along with many others, was very disappointed with the way the headlines came out. And I’m still getting calls today, the way the headlines came out, it’s just like the sheriff’s skirting around.”
District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan, who briefly attended Thursday’s meeting, said a letter from the sheriff to county officials requesting the increases obtained by The News and published in the July 28-29 edition of the paper was written by Brown at the request of County Manager Lloyd Kerr and Finance Director Nicole Cross.
“My understanding was that everything was worked out pursuant to finance, the county manager and the sheriff,” he said. “And we were trying to clean up a potential issue that could be perceived wrongly. And I think the letter that he had written was pursuant to what they said we needed on file. It wasn’t that he was asking for that, they had to have something on file.”
Cowan said Brown had been previously underpaid.
Brown said a number of things were happening at the time of the increase.
“I knew that I was being underpaid. I was just waiting,” he said. “We were trying to close all of this out at one time. And in closing all of this out at one time, that’s when all of this happened.”
Brown said his salary and expense account amounts are set by the Georgia constitution.
“The salary is set by the state. For the sheriff, the salaries are set, even the expense, is set by the constitution, by the state,” he said. “We don’t have any control over it.”
Brown said county governments are permitted to supplement the salary set by the state.
“Because the sheriffs’ salaries are controlled by the state, a number of counties automatically increase their sheriff’s salary,” he said. “Because we are paid according to when the state gets a raise, teachers get a raise, we get a raise; we stay behind the eight-ball more or less and what will happen is the county themselves will raise the sheriff’s salary.”
Brown said sheriffs’ salaries are determined by a county’s population. He said prior to 1991, in smaller counties deputies might make more than the sheriff.
“It goes back to 1991, before there was a set salary for sheriffs,” he said. “You had deputies making more than the sheriff because of the population. They were paid by population. So if you had a sheriff that had 5,000 folks, if he was being paid by population, he might have been making $7,000-$8,000. A deputy may have been making $10,000-$15,000. With that, they changed the law and now they have a minimum salary.”
The sheriff said salaries for constitutional officers are also affected by their time in office. Constitutional officers in Georgia are the elected officials in the Clerk of Superior Court, Judge of the Probate Court, Sheriff and Tax Commissioner positions.
“All constitutional officers’ salaries increase according to terms. Terms and the state raises,” he said.
Brown also said more elected officials were allowed to have expense allowances prior to 2016.
“This is the kicker when we talk about expense accounts everybody had an expense account until 2016. Everybody – I think it was 2015-2016 – everybody was getting some type of funding. And at that time, the law changed and the finance director changed,” he said.
“Every elected official, meaning that board members had an expense account up until 2016 – somewhere along in there. In 2016, we had a change of the law, as well a change of finance directors. And what happened, constitutionally, that did not affect constitutional officers. All constitutional officers are entitled to an expense account. We’re covered under the constitution”
Brown said the state gives counties the authority to add a per diem for constitutional officers on top of their expense allowances.
“It tells the board the authority that you have. Most agencies, this is what they do on top of an expense account, they give their sheriffs, their constitutional officers, they give them a per diem per day, and I haven’t even asked for that.
“These are things that are continued. And that’s the way the law is written, continued. And there is no reporting mechanism. There is no reporting required. I’ll tell you who posed the question – Commissioner (Nancy) Schulz posed the question – County Manager Lloyd Kerr responded and said there is no reporting required for these funds. The sheriff does not have to disclose how those funds are spent. Just like every other constitutional officer.”
Section 3-11(c) of the Georgia Sheriff’s Handbook details the rules governing monthly expense allowances for the state’s sheriffs.
“In addition to any salary, fees or expenses now or hereafter provided by law, the governing authority of each county is authorized to provide as contingent expenses for the operation of the Office of Sheriff and payable from county funds a monthly expense allowance.”
Brown said the expense allowance is included in his total compensation reported on his annual W-2.
“It’s not a separate piece. It’s all included.”
Brown also said that no man is above the law. He said he would never do anything to bring embarrassment to his family name.
“I went on to say the other night I was born and reared in a family with a rich heritage. Fifteen of us okay. Fifteen,” he said. “One of my sisters retired as the first African-American police chief from a major city. Others retired in the teaching profession. Others retired from corporate jobs with Florida Bell and Bellsouth. And the list goes on and on.
“Out of those 15 of us, none of us is on probation or have a criminal record. Why would the sheriff impose that type of embarrassment upon the family, not thinking of Newton County, but the family? It’s just mindboggling to me that someone would even think that?”
Brown said he sat down with The News to address the public’s concerns. He opened up his P-card records for inspection to put any questions to rest.
“That’s the reason why I have you here today,” he said.
Patting two large stacks of papers, Brown said, “I want you to go through this right here so we can put this thing behind us because what it is doing, and I’m not doing this for the sake of Ezell Brown – I want you to know that – I’m not doing this for the sake of Ezell Brown. I am doing it for the sake of this community because it’s tearing the community apart. I’m doing it for the sake of the donors who donate money to us to help us with all of these operations we have here.
“And I have never seen one of the folks who are complaining about what we are doing here on our donor’s list. I’ve never seen them volunteer to assist us in any way, shape, form or fashion. I’m not doing it for them. I am doing it for the folks who donate money, to ensure that we carry out these operations.
“What I’m afraid of is, if these folks who are doing the complaining continue, then the citizens are going to have to pick up the tab because I‘m not stopping the programs. I’m not stopping the back to school giveaway. I’m not stopping the toys for tots. I’m not stopping the feed the hungry. I’m not stopping the CHAMPS. CHAMPS program is funded by our donors, not by the board of commissioners. So that’s who I’m trying to get the message out to.”
Brown made the stacks of sheriff’s office P-card activity logs available for review and was available to answer any questions about the records.
One of the questions raised concerned P-card charges for florists around the country. Brown explained those charges.
“Every time we have a deceased member of an immediate family pass, we buy flowers. That’s what we do. Whether it’s in Philadelphia, Covington, Georgia or Utah, we send flowers,” he said. “And if we have an officer who is slain, we send flowers to the officer’s family. That’s something that we do.
“So it’s not uncommon to see that flower arrangement on the bill. That’s what we do.”
The sheriff said he maintains strict control of the P-cards issued to his office.
“I think we may have 15 cards total here in the agency and that’s for control,” he said. “We can’t give everybody a card. If you notice at the bottom of every last one of those P-cards, you’ll see my signature. What I do is I scan that card for any and all activity.”
Brown said many of the restaurant charges appearing on P-card statements result from providing meals for officers from outside agencies that come to the sheriff’s office to assist with hiring and promotions. He said there are also recurring monthly charges that can be paid only by credit card.
He said one large travel charge occurred when his department escorted the family of a fallen deputy to the law enforcement in Washington, D.C.
“That was the police memorial. We had just lost an officer, a fallen officer, and I thought it was our obligation and responsibility to escort the family there,” he said, “So we went to escort the family to the wall.”
Other travel expenses involve deputies traveling in conjunction with responsibilities as CALEA assessors.
“We have one officer here that is a certified CALEA assessor so they have to travel. That’s part of the certification,” Brown said. “Wherever the conference is held, then we send our folks there to the conference so that they can get all of the updates. They have to go to training so they can get all of the updates that are necessary for us to keep our certification.”
The sheriff said his P-card is used for a majority of the charges in his office.
“You’ll see probably 90 percent of the charges – somebody questioned me one time before … there was a charge, I think, in New Orleans, there was a charge in D.C., then there a charge in California-and it was on my card and they were wondering all in three days, how could I be at the same place,” he said. “And I told them it was very simple – control of the card. I know how the money’s being spent.
“Charge it on my card and I know who is going where. 99.9 percent of the charges that you see on the P-card as it relates to hotel and motel expense is not going to be mine. It’s going to be one of the officers here.
“The bulk of it is coming to my card because it gives me total control of how the money is being spent and I see it each and every month.”
Brown said his records are always available for review.
“You’re not going to find any better bookkeeping than over here,” Brown said. “That’s the reason I always invite the board, and I even invite the public, if you want to know what’s going on, come see me.
“As a matter of fact, open records, you didn’t have to do that. All you had to do is call me and say ‘Sheriff, I’ve got an issue with the P-cards, can we sit down and look at them’ and I’ll say ‘How fast can you get here.’
“We don’t have anything to hide. We have all the checks, we’ve got ledgers. I’m an old business guy. I’m deeply rooted in finance.”
Brown also said a majority of his office’s P-card purchases are reimbursed back to the county using drug forfeiture funds or grants. Documents obtained and reviewed by The News, including a check for nearly $5,000 from May of this year, bear that out.