The old site of the annual Morgan County Sheriff’s Rodeo is just off Highway 31. "During one of the sheriffs, it had kind of gone by the wayside,” Sheriff Ana Franklin told WAAY 31. It’s humble rodeo roots are in Hartselle at the Sheriff’s Posse Showgrounds.
Rick Sherman, former Morgan County deputy
Larry Berzett, Morgan County jail administrator
“Then, it got rejuvenated again under Greg Bartlett,” Franklin said. “In the last couple years of his term, he re-founded the posse and he started a rodeo."
In recent years, the posse moved the sheriff’s rodeo to its present Priceville venue at Morgan County’s Celebration Arena.
"So, when I became elected, we carried on the posse,” the sheriff told us. “We redid some things.”
Sheriff Franklin gave the rodeo a reboot. She was motivated by the success of neighboring Limestone County. “Basically, I had worked for Mike Blakely for several years prior to coming over here. And we had seen the sheriff's rodeo across the state. Several sheriffs have that.”
Now, the rodeo is a destination on the Professional Cowboy Association circuit. It attracts competitors from across the country and beyond. “And it seemed like a great way to interact with your community, to do a little bit of fundraising," Sheriff Franklin said.
Part of getting ready for the rodeo is selling sponsorships and advertisements. There’s nothing wrong with that. For some folks, though, the problem comes in when it’s deputies doing the door-to-door selling while they’re on duty.
"We’re professional law enforcement officers,” Rick Sherman told WAAY 31. “We're out there to enforce the law. We're not door-to-door salesmen.”
Sherman says Sheriff Franklin forced him to resign from the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office in 2016. He’s just filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Franklin.
Sherman told us Morgan County deputies collecting cash comes across as heavy handed.
“As law enforcement officers -- in uniform, badge, gun, everything else -- asking people for money, that wasn't our jobs," Sherman told us.
Besides toting guns and wearing badges, the sheriff’s solicitors are also on duty as law officers.
We asked, "You're confident they intended for you to sell while you were on duty?"
"Correct,” Sherman answered. “It was told to us while we were out on patrol, stop in and go by these businesses and ask these -- basically solicit for these -- donations and selling these rodeo ads.”
Sherman complains deputies selling ads is a conflict of interest and an abuse of authority.
“As deputies, we were forced to sell these ads against our will, basically. We didn't feel good about it -- at least I didn't. And I know a lot of the deputies didn't feel good about it,” he said.
WAAY 31 went door-to-door to learn if businesses agree. Not one business in Decatur, Hartselle or Priceville wanted to talk on camera. Everyone said controversy is bad for business. Off camera, all but one agreed with Sherman.
"Being in uniform and in a position of authority and asking people for money, ethically and morally, I just believe that that's wrong," Sherman explained.
He told WAAY 31 the deputies have no choice.
Sherman says he knew his job was on the line after he complained to Sheriff Franklin’s right-hand man, the Morgan County jail administrator.
"Larry Berzett on one occasion did explain to me that it was absolutely the responsibility of the deputies to sell these rodeo ads, that we worked at the will of the sheriff and that one of our responsibilities as deputies was to fulfill the will of the sheriff which was for us to sell these rodeo ads,” Sherman explained.
"I think that that's overstated,” Sheriff Franklin said.
When WAAY 31 asked, the Sheriff was quick to say her deputies do sell advertising and collect ad money while on duty.
But, she calls it an exaggeration to dub the deputies ‘door to door salesmen.’
"I like the deputies to go out whether they're selling rodeo ads or not to talk with business people and let them know who they are," she said.
Franklin called it a form of community policing and relationship-building.
"So, a lot of the deputies will stop in the store, they'll pick up their ad layouts or they'll say, 'Thanks for being a sponsor again' or it's people they know that they have contact with that they run in. So, it's very few deputies that are on patrol and that kind of thing that are selling ads on duty," she said.
Sheriff Franklin has told WAAY 31 no one in her office is able to comment on pending lawsuits. She also wouldn't comment directly about Rick Sherman since he's a former employee.
We reached out to the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office. They told us deputies’ first priority is enforcing the law and that’s a full-time job.
The Limestone Sheriff’s Office also told WAAY 31 there are no hard feelings against their deputies who don’t want to sell rodeo ads.
WAAY 31 contacted the the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, too. They tell us they’ve never issued an opinion on this type of complaint.
Other former sheriff's deputies are also reaching out to WAAY 31 about the practice of selling ads while on duty.