Ana Franklin, the former Morgan County sheriff, was sentenced today to two years of probation and 300 hours of community service for a federal charge of failing to file a tax return.
Franklin, 55, faced up to six months in prison and three years of probation, based on federal sentencing guidelines. Franklin pleaded guilty earlier this year to a charge of willful failure to file a tax return.
Prosecutors said Franklin didn’t file a federal tax return for 2015 — the year she loaned $150,000 of the local jail’s inmate meal money to a crooked used car lot.
Franklin didn’t seek re-election last year to a third term. She was succeeded by Ron Puckett.
Franklin declined to speak in court before Magistrate Judge Herman N. Johnson Jr. handed down her sentence. After the hearing, she said she appreciated the court’s decision. “It’s behind us now,” she told news reporters.
The judge ordered Franklin to file amended tax returns for 2014-16 and comply with the Internal Revenue Service to determine whether she owes any money. The judge didn’t order Franklin to pay restitution or a court fine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert O. Posey said prosecutors had considered pursuing other federal tax charges against Franklin but determined the misdemeanor count was “fair.”
When she was sheriff, Franklin took $160,000 from the jail food fund and loaned $150,000 to Priceville Partners — a now-bankrupt used car lot that was co-owned by a federal felon, who’s now indicted on theft charges in state court.
Federal prosecutors argued — and the judge agreed — that the use of the money constituted personal use, according to court records, meaning the sheriff should have reported it as income and paid taxes on it.
In the past many Alabama sheriffs have personally kept excess jail food money, citing an antiquated state law as permission to do so. State lawmakers have since passed legislation banning the practice.
Franklin’s attorneys William Gray and William Clark of Birmingham said in court records that the $150,000 wasn’t income for the sheriff but rather a personal loan from the inmate food account. The sheriff then loaned the money to the car lot based on a promise that the investment would be repaid at 17 percent interest, the lawyers said in court records.
“Ms. Franklin, like others who loaned money to Priceville Partners, lost their funds because of apparently illegal conduct at Priceville Partners, unknown to Ms. Franklin at the time of the loan.”
Because of uncertainty surrounding the legal nature of the funds, Franklin was unsure how to properly file her 2015 taxes. She missed the deadline in April of 2016 but filed the tax return in December of 2017. On advice of a certified public accountant, she considered the jail food money a loan — not income — and left it off the filing, her attorneys said in court records.
Franklin filed a claim in Priceville Partners’ 2016 bankruptcy filing, which is ongoing in federal court. Steven Ziaja, formerly Franklin’s boyfriend and an Alabama Law Enforcement Agency employee, repaid the lost money to the sheriff, court records state, because he had been the person who convinced her to invest in the car lot. The sheriff returned the money to the jail food account, her attorneys said.
Franklin’s loan to the car lot also led a federal judge in 2017 to hold her in contempt. At the time, the sheriff’s office was under a federal consent decree that prohibited the sheriff from using jail meal money for anything other than feeding inmates. U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon ordered Franklin to pay a $1,000 fine and cover the legal expenses of the inmates’ lawyers. The judge then terminated the meal money portion of the consent decree.
The public learned of Franklin’s car lot loan after the Morgan County Whistleblower —operated by blogger Glenda Lockhart, the sheriff’s nemesis — published copies of financial documents.
And just days before Franklin left office, Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson in December of 2018 sued the outgoing sheriff to stop her from personally pocketing any unspent inmate meal money. In a settlement reached last month, Franklin was allowed to keep $10,000 to cover her legal bills; she agreed to repay $45,000 to the county.
Franklin has been investigated by numerous agencies. Gray, her defense attorney, today told news reporters he isn’t aware of any continuing investigations into the former sheriff.
Franklin was raised in Morgan County before studying accounting at Jacksonville State University. A former canine handler, fintness center and bridal shop owner, and undercover agent, Franklin was elected sheriff in 2011. She replaced Sheriff Greg Bartlett, who had been dubbed “Sheriff Corndog,” because he pocketed more than $200,000 of the jail’s food budget while inmates ate corndogs twice a day. A judge put Bartlett in federal lockup for violating a federal consent decree.
Promising an end to the good ole’ boy system, Franklin became the first woman elected sheriff in Morgan County and the second female sheriff in the state.
“I won’t be keeping leftover jail money,” Franklin said in a 2010 story in The Huntsville Times and AL.com.
A former undercover agent and narcotics investigator, Franklin made it her mission to fight meth, a drug that has plagued the area. In asking for a probation sentence instead of prison time, Franklin’s attorneys pointed to a reduction in meth labs as one of several accomplishments she achieved as sheriff. They also said she improved the jail’s medical and mental health treatment, work release program, church for inmates and educational opportunities for prisoners, while facilitating crime reduction in the county and staying within budget all eight years.
Franklin now works as a customer service and sales manager for NCIC Inmate Communications, a Texas-based company that sells inmate phone services and IT programs to jails and prisons around the world.
At least 17 friends, relatives and former colleagues wrote letters to Judge Johnson asking for leniency in Franklin’s sentencing. The letters are included in a court filing by Franklin’s lawyers.
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, who himself is indicted on unrelated state charges of theft and abuse of power, employed Franklin at her first law enforcement job in 1999. “I have never known Ana to be dishonest and I hope and pray your court will show mercy on her upcoming sentence date,” Blakely wrote in a letter to the judge. “I have been told by many tax experts that in most cases for which she is charged, people merely were able to pay and penalty and correct the problem.”
Alabama Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Bobby Timmons called Franklin a “wonderful lady” and “honorable public servant,” who “performed an outstanding, Christian service to the citizens of Morgan County.”
Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor wrote that Franklin is a “person of high morals,” who worked “tirelessly” for the people of Morgan County.
Franklin’s mother and two adult daughters also asked the judge for mercy. Franklin is the primary caretaker for her elderly widowed mother, according to court records.
The inmate meal money controversy was one of several scandals that plagued the latter half of Franklin’s final term as sheriff.
A Morgan County judge last year issue a scathing order that said Franklin and along with deputies Blake Robinson, Robert “Bones” Wilson and Justin “JP” Powell had acted criminally during an investigation into fired jail warden Leon Bradley and Glenda Lockhart, the local blogger who has been critical of Franklin for years. The warden was arrested on a misdemeanor at the culmination of the investigation, but the judge dismissed the charge.
Franklin is also the subject of multiple lawsuits, including one by Bradley, who accused the sheriff of using her office to go after her opponents.
Franklin accused Bradley of leaking information to Lockhart for publication on the blog. In her own lawsuit against Franklin, Lockhart alleges the sheriff’s office used false information to get a warrant to search Lockhart’s business and home as part of the investigation into Bradley.