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Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard insisted Thursday that he did nothing improper by spending telephone payments from jail inmates on general operations instead of on programs that benefit the prisoners.

Howard blasted the conclusions reached by a County Comptroller’s Office audit while speaking before the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, contending that the report cast his department in a poor and misleading light.

“There was absolutely nothing wrong with what we bought. The telephone funds were used to supplement what wasn’t approved by the Legislature,” Howard said.

But County Comptroller David J. Shenk said the Sheriff’s Office had no business doing so. The funds should have followed precedent and been used for inmate-betterment programs, Shenk said, although he acknowledged that Howard had not violated state law.

“It was the established practice for 30 years. Should the county’s chief lawmaker be exploiting a loophole? He shouldn’t be,” Shenk said in defending his report.

The audit, released Oct. 25, said the Sheriff’s Office spent nearly $780,000 from the premium inmates pay to place phone calls on new automobiles, a computer system, furniture and police dogs for road patrol.

At issue is how phone funds can be spent. Until 2010, phone and commissary funds, which include items such as candy, snacks and clothing, were put into one pot and spent under commissary regulations that require use for “prisoner welfare and rehabilitation.”

The funds were separated two years ago – at the suggestion of then-County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, now the county executive – to improve accounting transparency. Howard said he applied them to department needs not funded by the Legislature because there are no restrictions on how phone funds – as opposed to commissary funds – can be spent.

Several county lawmakers, including Legislators Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, and Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, came to the sheriff’s defense, questioning why he was being taken to task when there were no prohibitions against such use in writing.

Hardwick also said Shenk should have made clear in his audit that there aren’t clear restrictions on using phone funds for departmental needs.

Shenk said repeatedly that he didn’t believe that Howard had the right to unilaterally redefine how the funds could be spent after decades of restricting use for inmate betterment.

The county comptroller said he plans to send a letter to the Commission of Correction to request clarity on the issue. But Commission of Correction spokeswoman Janine Kava told The Buffalo News that it’s an internal matter.

“The commission has no regulations on how that money is spent. It’s a matter for the sheriff and the county,” Kava said.

Later, Shenk said he was working on a solution that would guarantee that most of the commissary and phone funds would go toward inmates’ betterment, as he believed was intended.

Drawing on guidelines adopted in West Virginia and Florida, Shenk said he will recommend that in the future, 40 percent of the money is used for programs such as inmate education and recreation; 40 percent for inmate health, welfare and hygiene; and 20 percent for facility safety and security.

email: msommer@buffnews.com