Sheriff Byrd talks about controversial benefits fund

JACKSON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - A Jackson County Sheriff's benefit fund founded in 1988 has come under fire in recent days for what some officials say is questionable spending on some items. Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd, who took office in 2000, is defending the fund, saying it has helped thousands of people through tough times. He talked with Doug Walker about the controversy.

There's no doubt the sheriff's benefit fund deals in big money. It's all documented in hundreds of pages released by the sheriff under a public records request.

Thousands of dollars in donations, thousands more given away to hundreds of recipients. Those include high school soccer teams and charities like the cancer society.

There's one main goal though, according to Sheriff Mike Byrd.

"The benefit fund is primarily for the officers and the families in this department who may be in need. It's also for people in need in the community," he said.

That includes helping the needy at Christmas, spending more than $2,500 on Christmas baskets. Byrd said that's not all.

"We have spent money on food for officers that have lost loved ones, for flowers," Byrd said.

But money was also spent buying alcohol at dinner for members of a sequestered jury back in 2008. Ninety-seven dollars to be exact.

The court would not approve the payment for the drinks, and the deputy overseeing the jury didn't have the money.

"We didn't think anything about it," Byrd explained. "We were just helping out an officer who was in need, who made a mistake on his part, and that's the reason why we did it."

One of the biggest expenses--an annual Christmas party for department employees, where a gift is usually given to Byrd, one time valued at $300 dollars. He didn't know about that expense, since other people in the department also sign the checks.

"I was not aware until it was presented to me. I was not," said Byrd.

Another big expense, the annual trip for several deputies to Washington D.C. for police memorial week, a trip the sheriff staunchly defends.

"They escort the families of slain officers from the airport to their hotel rooms, to their banquets, wherever they need to go and they also stand guard for these families," Byrd explained.

He said money for the fund comes from private and corporate donations and two major fundraisers held each year.

"I'm very proud of the benefit fund. There's nothing that has been done wrong in our eyes here and we don't have anything to hide," said Byrd.

Some county supervisors say there are problems with the fund. The checks are written under the county's tax ID number and that needs to change. Melton Harris is one of them.

"The sheriff's department should operate under a separate ID number than with the county and I think an effort will be made to make sure that tie is disconnected," Harris said.

Is it a good idea to register the fund with the secretary of state's office as an official charity? The sheriff said, "yes."

"I think it is, and hopefully we can do that in the future, but we never thought anything about it. We just looked at it as our benefit fund," said Byrd.

Why so many questions about the fund now? Byrd has a theory.

"Well, I think it's just politics. There are different departments that have benefit funds that do the same thing," said Byrd.

The sheriff's benefit fund had a balance at the end of last year of a little more than $5,800.

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