Investigation: Ohio jail lost track of $500K worth of items at commissary

Officials began investigating the commissary, which is managed by the sheriff’s office, after receiving a complaint that it was donating expired food

By Kaitlin Durbin

CLEVELAND — The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office lost track of at least $500,000 worth of items from the jail commissary, where inmates purchase items such as snacks, hygiene products and telephone calling cards, a recent investigation found.

The county’s Inspector General’s office began investigating the commissary, which is managed by the sheriff’s office, after receiving a complaint that it was donating expired food. But investigators found numerous other violations from 2020 and 2021, ranging from bad bookkeeping to a complete lack of oversight that investigative reports said, “increases the risk of theft or unauthorized transactions going undetected.”

Boxes of commissary items are stored in hallways in some parts of the Cuyahoga County jail.
Boxes of commissary items are stored in hallways in some parts of the Cuyahoga County jail. (David Petkiewicz)

It also found the sheriff’s fiscal office, under the direction of Donna Kaleal, improperly spent $102,000 of the revenue generated from commissary sales.

The county quietly took action to correct the issue Tuesday by transferring control of the $2 million commissary fund from the sheriff’s fiscal office to the county’s fiscal office, where it will have greater oversight.

County council did not comment on the transfer and Executive Chris Ronayne had little to say about the investigation or why the county was stepping in.

“(The new commissary fund) will have its own budget, accounts and sub-accounts and will be managed by the fiscal office and approved by county council,” Ronayne’s office said in an emailed statement to and The Plain Dealer Tuesday.

The Inspector General’s office had recommended moving the commissary fund from sheriff’s management to the county’s fiscal office to “ensure adherence to” county rules, as well as to “reduce the risk” of future unlawful purchases, a summary of the investigation says.

The office detailed the violations in two separate investigation reports.

First, it cited $376,206 in commissary items that were listed in records as being in inventory but could not be found in the warehouse. Reports attributed the problem to accounting errors, waste from expired food or potential theft.

Around the time those reports were released in June, three correction officers at the jail were fired for stealing commissary snacks for themselves or inmates.

Reports say investigators also were “unable to trace” the inventory for 33 invoices that had been paid out totaling nearly $55,000. The investigation found $1,788 in expired chips, flour tortillas and Iced Honey Buns that had to be thrown out. And it cited $72,277 in unauthorized write-offs in 2020 because of damaged or spoiled items or counting discrepancies.

All revenue from commissary sales is meant to help the jail maintain its stock or make other improvements for inmates. Specifically, profits can only be used to purchase supplies and equipment, provide life skills training or other education benefits for persons incarcerated, to pay salaries and benefits for the employees who work in commissary or to purchase technology meant to prevent contraband from entering the jail, according to the Ohio Revised Code.

But when the Inspector General’s office reviewed a sample of payments out of the fund from 2020, it found $102,144 in inappropriate spending on vehicles, riot ammunition, laptops, printers, headsets, employee travel, employee reimbursement for groceries and parking.

It also found a questionable $25,000 payment to Watch Systems, LLC, a sex offender community notification program, which not only was an unauthorized use of the funds, but also violated the contract for how much the sheriff’s office was allowed to spend on the services. The expense was also improperly paid using a cashier’s check.

The Inspector General’s office has recommended the sheriff’s fiscal office work with the county’s law department to recover the $25,000 and return it to the commissary fund. It also recommended a series of other controls to provide better oversight of commissary management and account spending.

The county’s decision to take over the commissary fund comes as officials continue to debate whether the sheriff should be elected or at least be moved out from under the executive’s direct supervision and granted more autonomy over how his office runs.

Councilmembers are considering competing legislation that would answer the question of who the sheriff should report to. Councilmen Patrick Kelly and Michael Gallagher want the sheriff to be an independent office, like the county’s inspector general. Councilman Martin J. Sweeney wants the sheriff reporting to the executive.

Ronayne hasn’t weighed in on the debate, but he recently reorganized his cabinet to make the sheriff a direct report, on par with other department chiefs.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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