Officials to keep closer watch over jury meal spending - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Officials to keep closer watch over jury meal spending

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - After thousands of dollars were spent on some lavish meals feeding Hamilton County juries, officials say they're now keeping a closer eye on taxpayer money.

It's a story Channel 3 has been following since June, and it has sparked some changes in the system. Receipts were uncovered showing some meals cost more than $900 dollars in taxpayer money.

Other clerks in the state, including Nashville and Memphis, said they spend an average of $10 dollars per meal per juror. But for months, court officers in Hamilton County were spending close to 4 times that amount, bringing some claims of excessive spending to light.

"They told us not to worry about it, the state of Tennessee was paying for it," said Nick Byers, who sat on a Hamilton County criminal jury in May. Byers said he knew he'd get lunch -- but had no idea a typical lunch tab could run over $500.

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

According to 2014 trial receipts, taxpayers paid $11, 231 to feed juries of 14 people in just 26 days this year.

That sparked an internal investigation at the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. The court officer in charge, Lt. Rick Hamrick, was suspended. A former Court Officer of the Year, Hamrick officially retired on Monday after 30 years on the force.

Hamrick was put on paid administrative leave in June and has been off the payroll since August 1, using built-up leave time instead.

Sheriff Jim Hammond now plans to name a new corporal and hire another court officer. Captain Ron Parson is taking over Hamrick's duties.

"I have assigned a captain to do that, an already existing captain to fill in the blank," Hammond said.

"From day one, I intend to start looking at the budgets and see where the money is allocated, see what's being spent on what, see where we can cut and be more efficient," said new Criminal Court Clerk Vince Dean, who officially took office Tuesday.

One of Dean's campaign platforms was taxpayer money, including excessive spending on jury lunches.

"I will be speaking with the person in our office that actually signs off on that. There are several people that sign off on it, and I think with everybody that signs off on those lunches, someone in the process should be able to pick up on excessive spending," Dean said.

"It's up to the judges to sign off on the expenses for feeding the juries, and I think we are probably going to tighten up just to make sure everybody's doing what they're supposed to," Hammond said.

In Hamilton County, jurors are paid $13 for each day served. According to state law, a juror's employer must still pay them for a normal day's work, but their compensation for jury duty can still be taken out of their regular paycheck.
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