According to a Fifth Judicial District Grand Jury report released on June 5, former Sheriff Rod Fenske’s administration illegally charged Lake County Jail inmates for cost of care. Records show that at least 14 inmates were improperly billed over $16,000 in 2018.
Though the grand jury did not issue an indictment, the report highlights the administration’s malfeasance in relation to jail fees and names Fenske, former undersheriff Bill Kirkland and former jailer Mike Buerke as involved persons.
In January 2018, Kirkland began to initiate a cost-of-care program at LCSO.
Such programs, which are common across the nation, allow law enforcement agencies to recoup costs for housing inmates. Agencies often charge for room and board, food, clothes and medical expenses.
Before implementing the program, Kirkland met with Lake County Court Judge Jonathan Shamis to discuss the legal requirements for collection of cost of care. According the report, Shamis informed Kirkland that LCSO must obtain a court order for each inmate before collection of such fees.
Indeed, state statute gives courts discretionary authority to consider factors such as restitution and financial need before ordering compliance with cost of care programs.
Kirkland then brought a Lake County Sheriff’s Office fee schedule proposal to the Board of County Commissioners. In February 2018, the BOCC adopted the schedule which included a per-inmate booking fee of $30, a bond fee of $10 and a daily cost-of-care fee of $15.
According to the grand jury, Kirkland gave Buerke general instructions before implementation of the fee schedule.
According to Buerke, he had not read Colorado’s cost-of-care statute at that time and was not given any written instructions regarding the program’s legal requirements.
Buerke relied on information from a court database or his own presence in the courtroom to determine who to collect fees from. He did not seek court orders as required by law.
And on occasion, the report said, Buerke itemized cost-of-care fees in restitution request forms, documents unrelated to the jail.
Shortly after the cost-of-care program was initiated at the Lake County Jail, an inmate mailed a letter to the Colorado Office of the Attorney General. He asked the office to conduct an investigation into cost-of-care fraud at the facility.
“What makes this an even larger problem is that this isn’t a ‘mistake’ or a ‘misinterpretation’ of the statue,” the inmate wrote to COAG. “Deputy Buerke knows that a court order is required because he states to the offenders that ‘it’s ordered in the mittimus from the judge.’”
“I cannot stress enough that this deputy has acted with intent and knew from the start that what he was doing was wrong,” the inmate emphasized in his letter.
When the inmate brought his concerns to Kirkland, Kirkland allegedly told the inmate that the court approved of LCSO’s fee-collection processes.
The inmate then went to patrol deputy Sam Reynolds, who occasionally performed jail duties at the time.
Reynolds began to examine inmate files and their corresponding financial accounts. When Reynolds went to Kirkland and other deputies about the matter, he was assured that cost-of-care collection was being properly administrated and was discouraged from looking into the matter further.
“Those in charge have attempted to silence those that brought it to light,” the inmate alleged in a letter to the Herald.
In January 2019, Amy Reyes was sworn in as Lake County Sheriff. Reynolds brought his concerns regarding the jail’s cost-of-care collection to Reyes shortly thereafter.
On Jan. 23, Reyes gave the district attorney written notification of Reynolds’ concerns. The matter was referred to the grand jury on Feb. 19.
After months of research, the grand jury did not find probable cause to support the indictment of any involved individuals. However, the grand jury issued a finding that LCSO failed to diligently perform its duties with respect to the assessment and collection of cost of care.
Fenske, the report said, failed to properly manage the program. The former sheriff left office in January.
Kirkland left cost-of-care policies incomplete and unwritten. According to the report, the former undersheriff failed to train employees on the program’s implementation and was not responsive to the inmate or Reynolds’ concerns. Kirkland is no longer at the county.
Buerke, the report said, was indifferent to following policies and exhibited a lack of professionalism required of persons entrusted with jail operations. Buerke resigned in March and is now employed as a gate attendant at the Lake County Landfill.
The BOCC signed off on an audit of LCSO’s past and present financials last week. Reyes is authorized to spend up to $33,000 on the audit through the end of the year.
The audit, which is set to begin in July, will determine if any inmates not named in the grand jury report were improperly billed. The audit will also identify what inmates must be compensated for misappropriated funds, as the majority of inmates are yet to pay the cost-of-care bills.
Lake County Jail cost-of-care collections issued without a valid court order in 2018 ranged from $135 to $6,120. Over $16,000 was improperly billed to at least 14 inmates in total.
According to the report, the majority of collections are traceable to a LCSO account and only $170 remains unaccounted for.
However LCSO never transferred any cost-of-care funds to the State Treasurer’s Office, as mandated by law. If the audit identifies any properly collected cost-of-care funds, LCSO must transmit them to the State Treasury.
“Inmates are a vulnerable population and need to be well protected by those to whom their care is entrusted,” the grand jury wrote. “The Lake County Sheriff’s Office during the tenure of Sheriff Fenske during 2018, failed to properly protect and secure funds held upon inmate accounts.”
“This was official misconduct and gross negligence on behalf of sheriff Fenske and his administration,” Reyes told the Herald in support of the grand jury’s findings. “Moving forward with cost of care, we will adhere to state statutes, court orders and recommendations from the grand jury.”