The Tulsa District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday it has asked the state auditor’s office and the OSBI to investigate “irregularities” recently uncovered during an audit of inmate trust funds held by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.

The problem? Auditors have been pointing out irregularities in inmate trust accounts for at least seven years with little apparent action by the county. And, as recently as May 28, the Sheriff’s Office refused to release records about the matter to The Frontier.

The state auditor’s office notified the DA’s office Jan. 13 of problems it had uncovered during an annual audit. First Assistant District Attorney John David Luton “immediately requested a special audit of the books and accounts” of the inmate trust account, according to a release from the DA’s office.

State law requires that when arrestees are booked into a county jail in Oklahoma, money they are carrying must be deposited and held for their eventual release or transfer to prison. Money sent to prisoners by family members and friends is also supposed to be deposited into the inmate trust accounts.

State law requires the Sheriff’s Office to maintain and oversee the accounts, as well as to provide reports related to them.

The Frontier reviewed audits of Tulsa County government since 2009 and found state auditors have been reporting concerns each year about problems with inmate trust funds at the Tulsa Jail.

In 2009, auditors made five findings related to handling of inmate trust funds, all but one designated as “repeat findings” made in earlier years.

Among the findings that year: deposits were not always made daily; receipts for inmate funds were not issued in numerical order; vouchers issued to inmates after release were not issued in numerical order; inmate trust records were not reconciled and financial duties were not segregated.

“Monies received are not being safeguarded from possible impropriety,” the 2009 audit states.

In written responses, then-Chief Deputy Albin said some of the auditors’ directives were impractical and “not an option,” or simply disagreed with the findings.

However, Albin recommended several policy changes, including installing receipt printers in the booking area and reassigning duties for reconciling the trust funds. It’s unclear whether those changes were ever made.

State auditors made many of the same findings about lax oversight in inmate trust funds in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. In fact, fiscal year 2013 was the only year auditors did not discover financial lapses involving inmate trust accounts overseen by the Sheriff’s Office.

Though the audits do not mention missing funds, the 2012 audit notes: “Since May 2012, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office has restructured staff assigned to the Inmate Trust Account to ensure segregation of duties.”

The audit that year noted widespread problems involving jail funds:

  • Deposit slips and copies of deposit slips for the entire fiscal year 2012 were missing
  • The Sheriff’s Office could not provide some of the receipt books, deposit books and inmate booking reports while others were illegible
  • Bank reconciliations were not performed or verified
  • Five out of 10 disbursement checks lacked supporting documentation
  • Arresting officers used “any available receipt book” instead of sequentially numbered receipts
  • Before May 1, 2012, one employee was responsible for all inmate account duties

Despite pledges by the Sheriff’s Office to address the problems, last year’s audit again noted the potential for theft and non-compliance with state laws. The audit for fiscal year 2014 was provided to the county in February 2015.

As The Frontier reported in May, those repeat findings prompted little change and at least $25,000 of the funds went missing. At least one employee was allowed to quietly resign and no charges were filed.

The Frontier began asking the Sheriff’s Office for records related to the inmate trust funds on May 11. Here’s a link to the requests and responses by Meredith Baker, general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office.

Baker states in one email the Sheriff’s Office took no disciplinary action in relation to the inmate trust funds so no public record of a personnel action exists. Baker also states the trust accounts “are actually not comprised of taxpayer dollars.”

Note to the Sheriff’s Office and other public agencies: It doesn’t matter where the dollars come from. Records regarding “the receipt and expenditure of any public funds” are clearly to be made public under the law.

Arguing that trust funds held for inmates by the Sheriff’s Office aren’t “public” appears to be a justification for withholding records that could make the agency look bad.

Baker did not respond to a follow-up request to provide a redacted copy of an internal affairs investigation report regarding inmate trust funds.

The Frontier renewed its request Tuesday for records related to problems with inmate trust funds. You’d think after the former Sheriff’s indictment for refusing to release what prosecutors say are public records, the Sheriff’s Office would be eager to comply with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Open Records Act.

We’ll let you know how it turns out.