Former commissioner Rex Nolen said he brought up the issue in a 2011 work session after Randolph County Commissioner Doug Sheppard was indicted for his use of inmate labor in his landscaping business. Sheppard resigned in October 2011 as part of an agreement in which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor ethics violation charge of using his public office for private gain.
Earlier this month, an investigator from the Alabama Ethics Commission requested records of payments made to inmates through the county’s work-release program by Cleburne County commissioners Laura Cobb and Emmett Owen. The gas station Cobb manages has hired inmates, Cobb said, while Owen uses inmates regularly to help him with work around the county and at his business in Georgia, he said. The commission declined to comment on the investigation or what triggered it.
Nolen said the Sheppard case made him nervous about Cleburne commissioner Owen’s use of inmates.
“I’m not against using inmate labor, as long as they’re paying and they’re following the rules,” Nolen told The Star this week.
Owen said he remembers Nolen bringing the issue up at a meeting but not exactly what was said.
“He probably spoke his mind,” Owen said. “I know at one time he was talking about working some inmates on the road.”
Nolen said he had worried about the county’s liability if an inmate were hurt on the job.
Probate Judge Ryan Robertson, who chairs the commission, said he also remembered the conversation and thought it was a legitimate question.
“If one of us does something wrong, any of us could be named in a lawsuit,” Robertson said.
Nolen said Owen regularly took inmates to work on the state rights-of-way without the same safety precautions used for county road crews.
“If one of them got hurt, who was responsible, him (Owen) or the county,” Nolen said he had asked, adding that the commission had not approved the work.
Owen said he took the same safety precautions with inmates that county workers used. He always used a flagman and purchased the vest himself, Owen said. In addition, the inmates never used equipment; only Owen did, he said.
“I can’t have them operating a boom truck or a chain saw,” Owen said. “All they were doing was pulling the limbs to the side of the road.”
Former Commissioner Joel Robinson said he was also at the meeting, and he was also concerned about Owen’s use of inmates. Robinson said he was particularly worried about Owen taking the workers across the state line to Georgia, which Nolen also brought up.
Nolen said he dropped the subject after the other commissioners dismissed his concerns.
The labor may have been voluntary, but Owen said even when the inmates weren’t getting paid, he bought food and drinks for them. He said he had also purchased boots when their shoes weren’t adequate for the job. He also provided all the tools and trained the inmates to do the work, Owen said.
Owen thought that would help the inmates once they were released from jail, he said.
Robertson said the way he remembers the meeting, Nolen was asking Owen to check on whether his use of inmates was proper under the law.
“We thought the problem was taken care of,” Robinson said. “I guess it was not.”
Owen said he didn’t change anything after Nolen’s comments because he didn’t know what to change.
Nolen did not file a complaint with the Ethics Commission, he said.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.