FIRST ON 3: Taxpayers fund expensive jury lunches - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

FIRST ON 3: Taxpayers fund expensive jury lunches

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - Juries in Hamilton County have eaten more than $11,000 in food this year at the expense of local taxpayers. It is standard procedure to provide meals for working jurors, but claims of excessive spending are coming to light.

Lt. Rick Hamrick of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, who oversees court security, was suspended with pay last week following a murder trial with some expensive jury meal costs.

During nine trials that span 26 days in 2014, $11,231 has been spent to provide juror's lunches.

Channel 3 uncovered documents showing meal bills exceeding $400 -- to feed 14 jurors and two court officers -- have been charged since October 2013. The most expensive dinner tab to date totals more than $900.

"They told us not to worry about it because the State of Tennessee was paying for it," said former juror Nick Byers. "We questioned how much it was gonna be, but [officers said], 'Well, don't worry about it, the state's paying for it'."

When Byers sat on a Hamilton County jury last month, fine dining was the last thing he expected. But during the course of the four day trial, the state picked up a $920 tab for three lunches.

"They told us they take care of their jurors," Byers said. "We were like, 'Ok...' and then found out we were going to Boathouse."

Byers said officers casually encouraged jurors to order whatever they wanted, including appetizers and desserts.

"They didn't really seem to care," he said. "They acted like this was an everyday occurrence, not a big deal, we do this all the time."

Trial receipts in 2014 to date show a history of high spending at several local restaurants. Those include several transactions at the Boathouse with multiple charges up to $500.

The most expensive check came from Canyon Grill, where a $904 dinner tab was racked up during the Tony Bigoms murder trial in April. Jurors were sequestered during that specific trial. The itemized receipt from Canyon Grill lists $13 appetizers, nearly $40 steaks and $7 desserts.

But despite the fancy meals, Byers said some fellow jurors were upset because so much food was going to waste.

"There was a lot of food leftover," said Byers. "We asked,' Hey, can we take this with us?' and they said absolutely not."

Some of that wasted food has cost taxpayers a total of $11,231 this year to date.

"I just thought, thank you, great people of Tennessee for paying for my meal," said the former juror who was provided meals from Sticky Fingers, Boathouse and Chicken Salad Chick. "I mean, I basically paid for my meal as well with my own tax dollars."

Hamrick is suspended with pay until the Sheriff's Office internal investigation is completed.
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