An Alabama sheriff has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges alleging that he kept $400,000 in funds designated to feed the inmates in his custody while defrauding his church by using its food pantry to feed them instead.
Pickens County Sheriff David Eugene Abston, 68, of Gordo, was arrested Friday on seven counts of wire fraud and two counts of filing a false tax return, according to Jay Town, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
According to The Tuscaloosa News, Abston resigned Friday. Pickens County Coroner Chad Harless was sworn in as acting sheriff until a new appointment is made by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.
A plea deal in the case will allow Abston, who served as sheriff for 32 years, to plead guilty to a single count of wire fraud and one count of filing a false tax return, Town said in a news release.
“A sitting county sheriff is alleged to have defrauded a food bank and a church for his personal gain at the expense of the underprivileged that the food bank serves,” Town said. “Our office will continue to aggressively pursue and prosecute public officials who violate the public trust for their own personal gain.”
Abston is due in federal court in Birmingham July 23 for a change of plea hearing, court records show.
According to a May 29 indictment unsealed Friday, Abston received a set amount of money per day from the state and other government agencies to feed the inmates in the Pickens County Jail, located in Carrollton. The inmates included those awaiting state trials, as well as pretrial federal inmates.
Read former Pickens County Sheriff David Abston’s federal indictment below.
Between 2014 and 2018, he received more than $400,000 for that purpose.
“During that same period, Abston -- like many sheriffs in Alabama -- had a practice of keeping for himself any food allowance money that he did not spend to feed inmates,” the news release said.
While receiving the government funds to feed Pickens County’s inmates, Abston talked leaders at Highland Baptist Church of Gordo, where he was a member, into allowing him to set up a bank account to establish a church food pantry, in partnership with the West Alabama Food Bank. According to Town, the Tuscaloosa-based food bank collects donations of food and distributes it to its partners, which include churches, food pantries and soup kitchens in nine of Alabama’s western counties.
“The criteria for a church’s partnering with WAFB include a requirement that the church use the food it receives solely to serve the ill, needy or infants,” Town’s news release said. “In turn, WAFB provides food to its partner agencies for a nominal fee to help cover the costs of food maintenance and storage.”
The indictment against Abston states that he set up the account for the food pantry, assigning himself as the sole signatory for the account. Between 2014 and 2018, he wrote more than $50,000 in checks from his own bank account to that of the church food pantry.
In turn, he wrote more than $50,000 in checks from the food pantry account to the food bank in exchange for food.
Abston used a significant portion of that food to feed the inmates at the jail -- not the ill, needy or infants, as the food bank’s policy required, the indictment states.
He was charged with filing false tax returns because he failed to report all of his income for the 2015 and 2016 tax years, Town said.
Read former Pickens County Sheriff David Abston’s plea agreement below.
As part of his plea agreement, Abston agreed to immediately resign from his position as sheriff of Pickens County, court records show. He also agreed to pay restitution to the victims, as determined by the court at sentencing.
He also agreed to pay restitution for taxes due for 2015 and forfeit a total of more than $51,000.
Abston faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the wire fraud charge. The false tax return charge comes with a maximum of three years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Harless, who was sworn in as sheriff as soon as Abston resigned Friday, told the News one of his first priorities in his new office would be to call for an audit of the department’s finances.
“To make sure the public knows what’s going on and we’re not trying to hide anything,” Harless told the newspaper.
Abston is not the first Alabama sheriff to face scrutiny in recent years over taking advantage of the state law allowing sheriffs to pocket excess funds from jail feeding coffers. Last year, former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin became known nationwide as the “Beach House Sheriff” after an AL.com investigation into his department’s finances showed that, over three years, Entrekin had kept more than $750,000 worth of local, state and federal funds allocated to feed inmates in the Etowah County Jail, located in Gadsden.
Entrekin and his wife bought a beach house in Orange Beach in September 2017 worth $740,000.
Entrekin, who lost his bid for reelection in November, found himself under federal and state investigation last summer over his pocketing of the funds, AL.com reported.
While Alabama law allowed Entrekin to keep excess funds, lawyers and law professors told the news site in December that the former lawman likely broke federal law by keeping the jail food money.
The Alabama Legislature has since passed a law prohibiting sheriffs from keeping funds set aside to feed state inmates.
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