Clay County sheriff tells judge jail can’t pay for food, health care for inmates

The Clay County courthouse is pictured in a Google Maps Street View image from May 2018.
The Clay County courthouse is pictured in a Google Maps Street View image from May 2018. Google Maps

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office has run out of money and can’t pay its bills to provide health care and food for roughly 300 inmates at its jail, thanks to a budget process that it claims deliberately underfunded the county’s detention center, officials said at a trial this week.

A judge heard arguments Monday from top-ranking county and sheriff’s officials stemming from a lawsuit filed earlier this year in which Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo is requesting an order that the Clay County Commission adequately fund his office.

Vescovo believes that a majority of Clay County commissioners agreed to cut the sheriff’s budget as retaliation for initiating a 2017 investigation of assistant county administrator Laurie Portwood for allegedly directing a county employee to tamper with public records.

Portwood, who is the county’s top budget official, entered into a non-prosecution agreement over the matter. Portwood has received large pay increases since the tampering incident.

Portwood testified Monday, but said she could not recall who had sent her text messages about the sheriff’s budget, had difficulty answering the judge’s questions about her decisions regarding the sheriff’s budget and acknowledged that she routinely deleted text messages on her phone.

Monday’s trial may have burnished Clay County’s reputation for dysfunction and political backbiting.

“The system in this county is in need of some help,” said John Reddoch, an attorney who is representing Clay County Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte.

Citizens of Clay County have collected more than 9,000 signatures in a petition to have the county government audited. After the signatures are verified, State Auditor Nicole Galloway's office can begin its performance audit.

Nolte has a separate legal team in the sheriff’s lawsuit from fellow commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen because he often does not agree with them on substantive issues.

Ridgeway and Owen were represented by Ryan Harding and Courtney Lauer of the Husch Blackwell law firm, which did not present evidence, call their own witnesses or cross-examine the sheriff’s witnesses.

At issue during Monday’s trial were two years of budget cuts to the sheriff’s department, including steep decreases allocated to pay for contracts and commodities related to the operation of the county jail.

In each case, the amount budgeted for the sheriff is less than what his office requested.

Portwood testified that for the current budget year, the county attempted to budget based on employee headcount assigned to five subcategories under the sheriff’s department.

Fritz Riesmeyer, an attorney representing Vescovo, produced evidence that Portwood and others on her staff knew that the amount of money budgeted for the jail would not be enough to cover the contracts to provide food and health care to inmates.

Portwood acknowledged that the detention budget was underfunded, but said Vescovo could move money from elsewhere in his budget.

“We knew the sheriff would have to use another (budget) line,” Portwood said.

To move money around within his department, Vescovo would need the Clay County Commission’s permission.

On June 24, the sheriff’s office requested an additional $750,000 to pay contractors for food service and health care for the detention center’s inmates after spending through what the county commission budgeted.

Cathy Compton, a captain in the sheriff’s office overseeing the jail, said the county is behind on paying its bills to vendors.

“It’s stressful because I’m talking to our vendors, telling them this will get worked out,” Compton said.

The request for $750,000 went to Portwood, who did not send the request up to the Clay County Commission for a vote. Portwood said that decision was made after consulting with the county’s lawyers.

Judge Daren Adkins, a judge from Gallatin, Missouri, assigned to the lawsuit because all of Clay County’s judges recused themselves, questioned Portwood at length about her budgeting decisions.

“I want to understand what you did,” Adkins said. “I can’t.”

Adkins took Monday’s arguments under advisement, meaning he will rule at some future date. Attorneys for Nolte and Vescovo were pushing for a quick decision, owing to the jail’s dire financial needs, enough so that Nolte’s attorneys dropped an inquiry into the unknown source of text messages to Portwood about the sheriff’s budget.

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Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.