COVINGTON -- The question of how all the money was spent that was raised for the Newton County Sheriff's Office to purchase bullet-proof vests in 2009 came up in a recent public forum as a campaign issue between incumbent Democrat Sheriff Ezell Brown and Republican challenger Philip Bradford.In August of 2009, following a shooting involving Deputies Wesley Atha and James Trent, the Atha family began a public fundraising effort to purchase improved bullet-proof vests for every deputy employed by the NCSO.In response to an open records request from the Citizen, Sheriff Brown made available accounting records of both the funds donated by the public, which amounted to $89,412.43, and funds involving three grants from the Bullet-proof Vest Partnership, which have amounted to $79,591.50.
NCSO Lt. Keith Crum, who oversees grants and has been involved in the purchases of vests over the last four years, explained that the purchasing process for the vests has been ongoing. And, in fact, there remains a balance of $186.43 of the funds donated by the public because by using grants in addition to those public funds, the NCSO has been able to stretch the public dollars.
"We have two different things going on ... with Ms. Atha's fundraising, they started out collecting monies and set up a special account for safety vests," Crum said. "The Vest Partnership Fund grants, we've been applying for along. It's a program by the federal government where we buy the vests first. We have to pay for them up front. We have to buy the vests that are approved by the Partnership. They go out and do tests and they tell you what manufacturer and model number is an approved vest. You apply to them and then they'll award you a grant and you go buy the equipment; you pay for it and send them an invoice; and they'll send you 50 percent back. That money goes back to the county.
"In order for the money to go farther that the Athas got up for us, we used that money to initially pay for the vests ... then applying it to this grant, as well," Crum went on. " ... We've made this go 50 percent further than it would have if we had not coupled it with this Partnership. This didn't all happen in one year because we didn't need all those vests in one year."
Initially, 170 vests were purchased at an average cost of $401 each. He explained that it would not have been good stewardship of the funds to spend all the money on vests at one time because they have a shelf life and are each tailor-made for a specific deputy.
"These people get measured for their vests ... individually tailored to their size and whether they are a woman or a man, etc. When someone comes on new, we have to give them a new vest. They are not recyclable. You can't wash the vests because it degrades the bullet-proof component," he said.
Also, "carriers" which are worn next to the deputy's skin are part of the vest and Crum said even if a used vest happened to fit a new deputy, because they can't be washed, it would be unsanitary to pass it on.
Another factor in purchasing vests is that they have a shelf life of approximately four years before they expire and are considered no longer safe for service.
"If we purchased a supply of vests and kept them in reserve for two years, then we'd only be getting two years wear out of the vests," he said.
Taking all those factors into consideration, Crum said it is prudent for the department to purchase vests as they are needed and that is what they have done.
Crum said the NCSO didn't get a grant from the Bullet-Proof Vest Partnership in 2012 because they still had some money left from the 2011 grant, but would qualify again in 2013.
"It's an excellent, excellent program. It's been a great benefit to us," he said, adding that he also wanted to express to the Atha family what a great thing they had done for the department and assure them that all the deputies really appreciate their efforts.
Brown and Crum both attested that the vests purchased are state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line equipment and were chosen after testing, advice from experts and comparison with departments of comparable size.
At the time of the Citizen interview, the total number of vests purchased since 2009 was not available, but invoices reflecting that information are available at the Sheriff's Office upon request.
"The funds from the public fundraising and the grant funds were never mixed. When I took over we fixed everything so we cannot co-mingle funds," Brown said. "Apryl (Brown, an NCSO administrator) handled all these (public) funds. Sherry Dollar handled all the funds (from the grants) from the general account over at the Board of Commissioners; seized funds are handled through Apryl. We look for accountability. We look for a pattern. We look for a trend. What are we doing? We look for evidence. The vest and equipment fund has been an ongoing effort."
He went on to say that he regretted that someone felt it necessary to make accusations.
"It's making up things and not even talking about the massive undertaking of what it takes to run this office; not talking about the skills and education and leadership and what you need to run this office," he said. "This is what is troubling to me."
Brown said the funds had been audited by both county and federal auditors.
"Everybody is looking at us with a magnifying glass, so we're not going to do anything to dishonor the office or the community," he said.
When asked his response to the sheriff's explanation, candidate Philip Bradford said that all of the questions brought up at the recent forum had been asked of the sheriff in interviews about two weeks prior to the debate.
"Approximately two weeks prior he was asked all of these questions and he could not provide answers," Bradford said. "I'm glad Sheriff Brown, with the help of his staff, has finally answered this question."
Bradford went on to say that the questions raised at the debate were examples of issues he was attempting to bring forth.
"It was not my intent for these questions to become the main focus of this election," he said. "It's much larger than that. It's about leadership, transparency, accountability, and how differently I would lead this organization. If elected sheriff I will from Day One be transparent in my leadership of this department. I will give the citizens of Newton County the professional and high quality level of law enforcement that they expect and deserve. I will equip the deputies with the equipment and training they need to do their job. They deserve the best training available. Our standards will not be based on minimum requirements and what is thought to be adequate. To be professional, you must to be trained to be professional."