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Corrupt Sheriff the First Ousted in Almost 50 Years in Alabama

Alabama Supreme Court Justices have found Sumter County Sheriff Tyrone Clark guilty of willful neglect of duty and corruption in office.

By Kelsey Davis

Alabama Supreme Court Justices have found Sumter County Sheriff Tyrone Clark guilty of willful neglect of duty and corruption in office.

Their decision signals Clark's automatic removal from his position, to which he was elected in 2011.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said this was the first time in 44 years that a sheriff has been impeached.

"It's extraordinarily rare, but it's extraordinarily important because a violation of public trust by a law enforcement official is about the highest level of corruption I can imagine," Strange said.

A litany of allegations against Clark were fleshed out during his trial. Most of them centered around Clark's friendship with Rodney Coats -- an inmate at the Sumter County Prison who was made a "trustee."

Inmate trustees are typically low-risk, nonviolent offenders, said Assistant Attorney General Megan Kirkpatrick during her opening arguments on Monday. By contrast, Coats has eight criminal charges pending against him with a bond totaling $675,000.

Because of his "trustee" status, Coats was granted special privileges. But Coats' privileges went beyond what is normally granted to an inmate trustee.

A former chief deputy to Clark testified Tuesday that Coats had unsupervised access to what was known around the jail as "Coats' Quarters," located in the administration building.

Found in "Coats' Quarters" was a television, bus seats from Clark's old campaign bus, a couch, a toolbox and a laptop labeled "Sheriff" that Coats used to monitor his drug operation from jail, testimony indicated.

One woman testified Monday that she was held against her will in a trailer controlled by Coats, which was equipped with surveillance cameras that fed into his jail laptop. She said she was regularly made to bring drugs to Coats in his quarters, where he and other detention officers raped her. She also accused Clark of sexual assault.

Clark denied her allegation, as well as being aware that she had been brought to Coats.

He was also found guilty of allowing Coats and other inmates to leave the jail to go work on his house or perform other jobs for community members. Under cross-examination, Clark admitted to knowing this was a crime when he allowed it to happen.

Defense counsel argued during trial that Clarks' case was one of small town politics that had been blown out of proportion.

"This case illustrates a conspiracy by political opponents by the sheriff who were sore losers," said defense attorney Robert Tuten during closing statements Wednesday. "They couldn't beat him in an election, and attempted to knock him out of office so they could take his place."

The investigation into Clark's activities was initiated by the Sumter County District Attorney's Office. Any criminal charges brought against Clark would be a separate matter. Sumter County District Attorney Greg Griggers said he could not comment on any ongoing criminal investigations pertaining to Clark.

(c)2016 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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