Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond confirmed Thursday that his office is investigating allegations that Lt. Rick Hamrick purchased unauthorized meals for himself and others with taxpayer money intended to be used solely for jurors and attending court officers.
The nine jury trials held so far this year in Hamilton County Criminal Court have resulted in a nearly $13,000 tab for juror meals -- 34 meals for at least 14 jurors and two deputies.
A review of receipts shows some big dining tabs for jurors, and visits to pricey, even exclusive restaurants. Among them:
• $608 for lunch at the Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar for a nonsequestered jury on May 15. Bills from the Boathouse included items as expensive as $39.90 for a salmon entree.
• A bill of $1,303.52 for jurors and court officers who ate supper at the Canyon Grill, a fine dining restaurant atop Lookout Mountain, Ga., on Sunday, April 13. The most expensive entree ordered was a 9-ounce filet mignon for $38.95.
"If substantiated" the allegations against Hamrick could result in criminal charges of "misappropriation of funds," Hammond said. But it could have been "just bad management," he said.
Before Hamrick was suspended this week, he supervised all courtroom deputies and courthouse security for the sheriff's department.
Reached by phone late Thursday, Hamrick declined to comment.
The April murder trial of Tony Bigoms required a sequestered jury, meaning jurors and four court security officers received meals at least twice daily for its seven-day duration.
Dinner at the Canyon Grill was one of them. That meal alone came to three times the average cost of feeding juries for an entire day.
One juror in that trial said he did not order the more expensive items while dining out and didn't think the other jurors did, either.
George Genter, of Harrison, also said that none of the jurors was instructed "in any way" in what food to order.
But not all juror meals are as pricey.
Most jury trials are not sequestered. The Bigoms trial has been the only one this year. For typical jury trials the court provides only one meal, lunch. Jurors are also paid $13 a day and given a $2 parking pass discount. Parking is $6 per day in the garage next to the Hamilton County City-County Courts Building.
Receipts show the cost of juror lunches ranging from as low as $141 to $200 for 14 jurors when ordered from Chicken Salad Chick or Ankar's Downtown.
Even including some of the pricey meals, the average meal price per juror so far this year comes to between $21 and $23, according to court records.
HOW IT WORKS
Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell and her staff explained that each courtroom's bench clerk fills out basic information for a voucher form to be used during a criminal trial. That form is then signed by the judge and handed to courtroom deputies who take it with them to give to local restaurants once jurors have eaten or pickup food is ordered.
The deputy gets a receipt. The deputy's supervisor then signs the voucher. The documents are then turned back in to the clerk's office.
The clerk sends copies to the department of finance for Hamilton County. Restaurants are paid based on the receipt amounts.
The clerk's office then sends the voucher and receipts to the Tennessee Department of Correction, which reimburses up to $500 a day total expenses for jury trials.
For the 26 days of jury trials so far this year the meal receipts have exceeded $500 on eight occasions. Five of those occurred during the sequestered jury for the Bigoms trial.
If the $500 daily reimbursement figure is consistent for all trials listed, then the county was responsible for an estimated $3,696, according to court records.
Neither TDOC officials nor officials at the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts could provide information on whether there are different allowances for sequestered juries as of press time Thursday.
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP
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Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...