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Judge calls for proposed order to resolve Jefferson County sheriff's funding lawsuit

by I.C. Murrell | September 14, 2023 at 7:35 p.m.
Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods Jr. (left) and Gerald Robinson, the county judge of Jefferson County, are shown in these undated file photos. (Left, courtesy photo; right, Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)

A judge on Thursday asked attorneys on both sides of a lawsuit over funding for the Jefferson County sheriff's office to draft a proposed order with findings of fact.

Retired judge Gary Arnold conducted the hearing at the Jefferson County Courthouse for the lawsuit, which Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods Jr. filed in March 2022 against County Judge Gerald Robinson and all 13 members of the Quorum Court. Arnold is presiding over the case because local judges recused themselves.

Woods accused the county judge’s office of not issuing payment on what the sheriff said he considered reasonable claims.

Both sides established there were at least 90 claims, all from the sheriff’s office, over a 15-month period that have gone unprocessed. One of the claims was for a payment to Sysco food systems, a supplier for the youth and adult detention centers, that Robinson’s chief of staff Rosetta Giddens testified was “$37,000 short.”

Robinson argued that the claims were not processed due to missteps in the coding and due to a request for funds from the wrong line item of the budget — the request was for food for inmates, and it was placed under “Radio Fund.”

“I’m glad it’s about to be over,” Robinson said, standing next to his attorney Casey Castleberry. “It’s time for the county to move forward. It’s time for us to start handling business. I hate that it came to this. I wish we could have resolved this thing just by sitting down and talking.”

The draft proposal from attorneys would deal with budget funding and handling claims for payment under the budget, and Arnold reserved a further ruling for later in the month.

The lawyers have until 5 p.m. Sept. 21 to send the draft proposal to Arnold, who is hearing the case in the civil division of the 11th District West Circuit Court. The 11th District includes Jefferson and Lincoln counties.

Kimberly Dale, who represented Woods, said she can respect Arnold’s call for the proposed order because both sides will be taken into consideration.

“I think he’ll look at various factors both sides have pointed out,” Dale said. “I think he’s been very attentive to the testimony today. And, so, I anticipate we’ll have a resolution that’s going to make it to where we never have another claims issue again in Jefferson County.”

Arnold asked Woods and Robinson individually toward the end of the seven-hour hearing how they thought the case should be resolved.

Woods replied that he needs “some hard, hard-written instructions” on how requests for payment should be made to Robinson’s office, unless it’s clear that fraud has been committed. Woods contended that his office has been wrongfully denied claims for payment for operations including food service and essential hygiene products for female detainees.

“I will be satisfied if those claims would be processed without delay,” Woods said.

Robinson told Arnold that he feels an order should be made for expenditures out of the proper budget.

“We’ll pay those expeditiously,” Robinson said. “I just want to make sure we’ll have an accurate expenditure from each budget. I would ask that an order be done and that there be an order where we can come together and discuss those before there gets to be a denial. I would be really happy to do that.”

Two of the lawsuit's original three counts have already been resolved. One count accused the county judge of a lack of sufficient appropriations for the juvenile justice center, but Arnold ruled that count moot, saying that budget was dated in 2022 and that he lacked jurisdiction to rule on it.

Plaintiffs were granted a summary judgment on another count that a job requisition form required by the Quorum Court in March 2021 was unconstitutional.

The remaining issue Thursday was the plaintiff's contention that the county judge's denials of more than 90 budget claims were “arbitrary and capricious.” The sheriff's attorney said any change that results from the order will work in the sheriff’s favor.

The judge said Thursday that it wasn't clear to him what the deficiency was in each of the budget claims that were rejected.

“I do get the feeling the specific procedure for making claims and having them approved and properly submitted is a bit of a moving target,” Arnold said.

However, Arnold added, the petition regarding the rejection of claims “was a little bit stubborn.”

“I think you two gentlemen are successful and very good at what you do,” Arnold told Woods and Robinson. “I think you should be able to communicate much better.”

Woods said in an Aug. 29 news release that he paid out of his own pocket for the hygiene products, and that he was seeking to have those payments reimbursed. Woods has also contended that he can no longer use an agency-issued Simmons Corporate credit card due to suspension for nonpayment.


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