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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Northern District of Alabama

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, June 14, 2019

Pickens County Sheriff to Plead Guilty to Wire Fraud and Tax Charges

Pickens County Sheriff to Plead Guilty to Wire Fraud and Tax Charges

BIRMINGHAM – Today a federal indictment was unsealed against the longstanding sheriff of Pickens County for wire fraud and filing false tax returns, announced U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp, Jr. and IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Holloman.  Also today, a plea agreement was filed in federal district court.  According to that agreement, the defendant has agreed to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of filing a false tax return.

The nine-count indictment filed in U.S. District Court charges Pickens County Sheriff DAVID EUGENE ABSTON, of Gordo, with seven counts of wire fraud and two counts of filing a false tax return. 

“A sitting county sheriff is alleged to have defrauded a food bank and a church for his personal gain at the expense of the underprivileged that the food bank serves,” Town said.  “Our office will continue to aggressively pursue and prosecute public officials who violate the public trust for their own personal gain.”

“No matter what your career or position is within our communities, all U.S. citizens are obligated to comply with the tax laws,” said Holloman. “Honest and law abiding citizens are fed up with the likes of those who use deceit and fraud to line their pockets as well as skirt their tax obligations.”

According to the indictment, as sheriff of Pickens County, Abston was responsible for the care and custody of prisoners housed in the Pickens County Jail.  That responsibility included feeding inmates housed in the jail.  In exchange, Abston was entitled to receive a specified food allowance per prisoner per day from the state of Alabama and other governmental entities.  Between 2014 and 2018, Abston received more than $400,000 in food allowance money from the state of Alabama and other governmental entities.  During that same period, Abston—like many sheriffs in Alabama—had a practice of keeping for himself any food allowance money that he did not spend to feed inmates.

During that same period Abston engaged in a scheme to defraud the West Alabama Food Bank, as well the Highland Baptist Church of Gordo, Alabama—where Abston was a member—in order to reduce his jail food expenses and increase the amount of food allowance money he could keep.

The West Alabama Food Bank (WAFB) is a non-profit based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with the stated mission of helping to alleviate hunger and food insecurity in nine West Alabama counties.  WAFB collects donations of food and distributes that food to partner agencies such as churches, soup kitchens, and food pantries.  To become a partner agency with WAFB, a church must submit an application stating, among other things, that the church will distribute food in compliance with WAFB policy.  The criteria for a church’s partnering with WAFB include a requirement that the church use the food it receives solely to serve the ill, needy, or infants.  In turn, WAFB provides food to its partner agencies for a nominal fee to help cover the costs of food maintenance and storage.

According to the indictment, in 2014 Abston convinced Highland Baptist Church in Gordo, Alabama, to permit him to open a bank account to be used for a church food pantry with WAFB.  Abston opened that bank account, in the name of the Highland Baptist Church Food Pantry.  Abston was the sole signatory on the account.

Around the same time, Abston applied, on behalf of the Highland Baptist Church Food Pantry, to become a partner agency of WAFB.  The application to WAFB claimed that the “general program” of the church food pantry would be to help “feed poor” and “children from disadvantage[d] and poor neighborhoods.”  The application claimed that the food pantry would use unemployment, sickness, and poverty as eligibility guidelines for food.  The application said nothing about the food pantry’s providing any food to inmates in the Pickens County Jail.

Between 2014 and 2018, Abston wrote more than $80,000 in checks from his own bank account to the church food pantry bank account, and wrote more than $80,000 in checks from the food pantry bank account to WAFB in exchange for food.

According to the indictment, Abston used a significant portion of that food to feed inmates in the Pickens County Jail.

The indictment also alleges that Abston filed false tax returns for the 2015 and 2016 tax years, because he failed to report all of his income for those years.

Each count of wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000.  The maximum penalty for filing a false tax return is three years in prison and a $100,000 fine for each count.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service investigated the case, which Assistant U.S. Attorney John B. Ward is prosecuting.

An indictment contains only charges and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

 

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Updated June 14, 2019