Leadville – According to a 5th Judicial District grand jury report released June 5, former Sheriff Rod Fenske’s administration illegally charged Lake County Jail inmates for cost of care.
Records show at least 14 inmates were improperly billed more than $16,000 in 2018.
Though the grand jury did not issue an indictment, the report names Fenske, former Undersheriff Bill Kirkland and former jailer Mike Buerke as involved persons.
In January 2018, Kirkland began a cost-of-care program at the sheriff’s office.
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. According the report, Shamis told Kirkland that the sheriff’s office must obtain a court order for each inmate before collecting such fees.
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 took a Lake County Sheriff’s Office fee schedule proposal to the Board of County Commissioners. In February 2018, the board 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 implementing the fee schedule.
Buerke said he had not read Colorado’s cost-of-care statute at that time and was not given any written instructions about 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.
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, asking 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 statute,” the inmate wrote to the attorney general. “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 wrote.
When the inmate took his concerns to Kirkland, Kirkland allegedly told the inmate that the court approved of the office’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 told Reyes of his concerns about the jail’s cost-of-care collection shortly thereafter.
On Jan. 23, Reyes gave the district attorney written notification of Reynolds’ concerns. The matter was referred to the grand jury Feb. 19.
After months of research, the grand jury did not find probable cause to support indictment of any individuals. However, it issued a finding that the sheriff’s office failed to diligently perform its duties with respect to assessment and collection of cost of care.
Fenske, the report said, failed to properly manage the program.
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.
County commissioners authorized Reyes to spend up to $33,000 on an audit, set to begin in July, to determine if any inmates not named in the grand jury report were improperly billed. It 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.
The Herald Democrat in Leadville is published by Arkansas Valley Publishing Co., the parent company of The Mountain Mail.