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My story, part 5


In last week’s article, I talked about deputies seizing my cell phone – a personal phone also used for business. Not sure it’s entirely legal to seize a journalist’s phone since we sometimes deal in confidential information. But that’s another legality (or illegality) to look at another day.
So, Deputy Arthur Odom and another deputy seized my phone on Monday, October 23, 2023. Four months later, I obtained a document dated October XX, 2023. The copy is not good, and I can’t make out the date. On this document, Arthur signed an “affidavit in support of application for search warrant.” So, the search warrant was issued; my phone was seized; and later I obtained a document which disclosed what they supposedly discovered on my phone.
The opening statement on the affidavit is interesting. “The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office received information of possible collusion between Escambia County School Board members.” What I would really like to know – and may never be able to find out – is who gave them that “information.” Did there not have to be a factual basis? Apparently not. Maybe a hunch or a rumor is sufficient for legal action.
The result of this investigation was that School Board member Cindy Jackson and I made “approximately 40 phone calls” to each other between September 11 and September 28. To that finding, I say, so what? We could have called each other 40 times a day and not have broken any laws. By the way, I still have those calls on my phone – but I find only 12 calls during those dates. The affidavit mentions “numerous phone contacts” but cites 40 phone calls. What else were they looking at? Emails? Texts? Facebook messages? Did “they” look at my search history? I can honestly say I don’t have anything on my phone I would be afraid for someone to see, but the idea that someone can do that is disturbing.
But that’s not really what this was about. This is taken directly from the affidavit:
“An Escambia County School Board meeting was held on September 26, 2023. The board members were scheduled to vote on the contract status of the current school Superintendent […]. This vote took place, and it was voted to not renew [the superintendent’s] contract. lt is believed Digman and Jackson held private conversations regarding the vote and outcome of the Superintendent vote. Escambia County School Board members are prohibited from discussing school board issues outside of a public forum.”
And that is the crux of the matter – the vote was not to extend [the superintendent’s] contract. There’s no mention of any other school board business, because none of that mattered to the people involved – only the vote mattered, and it didn’t go the way they wanted it to.
Did you get that last sentence I quoted above: “… prohibited from discussing school board issues outside of a public forum.” Does that mean that a mayor can’t call a councilmember and talk about an issue or vice versa? Or councilmembers can’t talk to each other? Or a county commissioner can’t talk to another commissioner? That’s an absurd statement. The law refers to a quorum – not a one-on-one conversation.
The affidavit continued with some legalese about the Open Meetings Act. There are a couple of points I’d like to make about District Attorney Steve Billy’s charges about the Open Meetings Act. He listed it as a criminal offense. The law was changed in 2015 so that a violation became a civil offense – a misdemeanor, not a felony. It’s punishable by a $1,000 fine or one-half of the offender’s monthly salary, whichever is less. (In the case of the Escambia County School Board, one-half would be $400.) One other point – my name is misspelled throughout the affidavit.
When Arthur took my phone, I asked him how long it would be before I got it back. I think he said a few days. So, Thursday, October 26, I started texting Arthur about my phone – I used Myrna’s phone, not my temporary phone. He said my phone was still being processed, that he should know something the next day. To which I texted, “I’m sure it doesn’t matter to anyone there, but my phone is also a business phone. Can’t imagine how many business calls we’ve missed this week.” Arthur’s reply: “I understand.”
Monday, October 30, I sent another text asking about my phone. Arthur replied Tuesday, October 31, that my phone should be ready sometime that day, but later texted that it could be released the next day, November 1.
My phone was seized in October 2023. I obtained the affidavit I refer to above on February 12, 2024. If I could have gotten it several months earlier, I might have seen the train speeding down the track directly toward me.

October 25
During all this, there was never just one thing going on at any given time.
Myrna was still recovering from a broken leg in the swing-bed program at Atmore Community Hospital. My phone had been seized, so I was dealing with that.
Wednesday, October 25, we published an article in Atmore News on DA Steve Billy’s Covid funds investigation. A document had been sent to us – we did not obtain it illegally. It was provided to us by someone who had no idea it had anything to do with the grand jury – just as Don Fletcher and I didn’t know.
Later, the DA said there was a code on the subpoena that indicated it was in reference to the grand jury. He further stated that everyone who saw the document should have realized it was in reference to the grand jury. (This is not direct information. He didn’t say that to me, but to others. In fact, I had no contact with the DA.) I never noticed it, and I don’t think anyone else did.
This is the statement on the subpoena: “This subpoena is issued under the provisions of §12-17-184, Code of Alabama, 1975, as amended.”
You’re welcome to Google this Code and read it. Best I can tell, it outlines the DA’s duties, but has nothing specific about this subpoena.
The DA issued the subpoena and had it carried out by the sheriff’s office to Rochelle Richardson, school board chief school finance officer, and Ashley Fore, payroll supervisor.
Several current and some now past employees were named in the DA’s investigation. We specifically named two of the people in the article – not just by position but by name. I felt what the DA was doing was a travesty. These are good people who dedicated years to the school system.
Rochelle was out of town. Sheriff Heath Jackson personally delivered the subpoena to Ashley, who got in touch with Rochelle and informed her. (Ashley was later arrested for revealing grand jury secrets. She was not indicted by the grand jury. And she was completely innocent in all this. She did not “reveal secrets.”)

According to the subpoena, they were ordered “… to produce any and all checks written to employees and labeled as ‘COVID’ payments’ or ‘COVID BONUS’ for the following years: 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023. For the purpose of the furtherance of an investigation/prosecution into a criminal matter.” The subpoena was issued September 19, 2023.
A text of the subpoena was sent to me on September 19, but I didn’t do anything with it at the time. In fact, I don’t remember why I felt compelled to publish it in October. Maybe I had started hearing some stuff coming out of Brewton that concerned me, made me think there was something going on that needed to be brought to light.
The second page of the subpoena was this document dated August 13, 2021:
This is the first part of the document:
“The following personnel have been approved for the following salary supplements to be paid from ESSER funding. These supplements are for additional duties as a result of the administration, formulation, and implementation of ESSER Funding. These supplements are for the 2021-2022 Contract Year (July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022) and are retroactive to July 2021. (As per the Board approved Salary Schedule – Approved June 28, 2021) in effect July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022 – Supplements – federal: ESSER Funds – Page 15).
“All supplements are granted on a year-to-year basis, with no commitment or expectation that these supplements will become part of the employee’s salary or that these supplements will be paid each and/or every year.”
I include that documentation to stress the fact that all this was done legally, was approved by the board and signed by then-Superintendent John Knott. (By the way, I was not on the Board in August 2021, but certainly would have voted to approve this action. These folks were working in a crisis situation.)
Six employees who received ESSER funds were named, and their payroll records were subpoenaed.
By the way, ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief. These are funds released by the U.S. Department of Education to aid schools during the Covid pandemic and in recovery.
I have questions about the DA’s actions:
The subpoena stated this was “For the purpose of the furtherance of an investigation/prosecution into a criminal matter.” What is criminal about using federal funds designated for a particular purpose? These were not funds coming out of the school system. They were provided by the federal government. Even so, why the scrutiny from the DA?
How would the DA even know about an internal action by the board and superintendent? Was someone suggesting to or instructing the DA to do this? For what purpose? And who was behind it?

Unknown date
At some point during this time, a dear friend and advocate in Brewton said to me in a phone conversation, “Sherry, you need to get a lawyer.” I would never in a million years have dreamed that someone would need to say that to me. But I took his advice and got a lawyer.

October 27, Friday
That morning, I drove Myrna to her surgeon in Foley to have the staples taken out of her broken leg which was mending nicely. That afternoon, I took pictures at the hospital of nurses and nursing students who participated in a special project. I did an article and pictures for the next edition of Atmore News. It was a normal day – until about 3:45 that afternoon.
Don Fletcher and I were arrested for “revealing grand jury secrets.” I went into our arrests in detail in My Story, part 1 (Atmore News, June 12, 2024).
We were released from jail that evening.

October 28
Don and I both attended Williams Station Day in Atmore. Don had posted our arrests on the Atmore News Facebook page the night before.
The support from folks as we walked up and down the street was overwhelming.
Then the calls and emails and texts started coming in from media all over the country, mainly in the East – calls from Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, Washington Post, Voice of America, Committee to Protect Journalists, many others. We referred them to our attorney. We also received numerous emails from individuals through our Atmore News website.
From Mobile to New York to Washington, D.C., reporters, editors and publishers, and many individuals were livid that we had been arrested. Suddenly, all eyes were on Escambia County and Atmore News.
Apparently, everyone except people in the Escambia County legal system knew our arrests were unconstitutional.

October 29, Sunday
Myrna was released from the hospital.

October 30
Don and I met with attorney Earnie White at his office in Brewton. That afternoon, we had a hearing before Judge Eric Coale, who issued in effect a gag order – although he didn’t call it that. Our appearance paperwork stated we were charged with “Reveal evidence grand jury.” The judge’s order to us was “no communication about ongoing criminal investigations (two illegible words) school board investigation.” I question the legality of his action. Again, perhaps an illegality to look into another day.
In a later Atmore News article about our hearing, Don wrote that he and I “signed statements acknowledging that, as a condition of their bonds, both would in the future have ‘no communications about ongoing criminal investigations including schools and other.’ Coale verbally added, ‘until they are public record.’”

Some closing comments on this article:

  • A friend from a school board elsewhere in Alabama told me that after he read my first article, he said to a fellow board member, “Oh, Lord, they’re going to arrest her again!” I have thought about that – the possibility of being arrested again on a trumped-up charge. But I feel the more I can bring to light, the better for all of us. Everyone needs to know.
  • Someone mentioned a derogatory Facebook posting about My Story, part 4. I don’t look at the posts. In fact, throughout this whole ordeal, I have looked at very few Facebook posts. I have a couple of reasons for that. One is that some of the Facebook posts are bogus. Anyone can make up a name and say anything. That’s usually the negative, vile comments. Another reason I haven’t looked at Facebook is because there are people out there who have known me for years and were waiting for the DA to present his evidence, for me to be found guilty of something. They just knew there was something there or the DA and sheriff wouldn’t have done all that. Well, I can’t say I’m sorry to disappoint you. Guess you’ll have to look someplace else to rejoice in someone’s misfortune.
  • I know what some of the people involved in all this will say – “I was just doing my job.” “I was just doing what I was told.” “I was just following orders.”
    And to that, I say how sad for you.
  • As I work on these articles, I find more and more layers to peel back. Keeping a timeline may prove to be difficult, but I’ll try to stay with that format for cohesiveness. As I write this part of the article, it’s Sunday afternoon, July 7. I worked on this article the better part of Saturday afternoon and a good bit of this afternoon. I’ll read it and reread it before it goes to press. A few other people will read it too. Know that I’m being as accurate as I can possibly be. There have been enough untruths out there – I certainly don’t want to add to them.
  • God is faithful.

To be continued.