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Sheriff accused of scamming church, food bank pleads guilty

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A former Alabama sheriff accused of scamming a food bank and church and pocketing leftover money meant for feeding inmates pleaded guilty Tuesday to two of nine federal charges lodged against him.

Former Pickens County sheriff David Abston, in federal court in Birmingham, pleaded to committing one count of wire fraud and one count of filing a false tax return, The Tuscaloosa News reported. The remaining charges have been dropped.

Abston could face up to 20 years in prison, but attorneys with the U.S. Attorney’s Office have said they’ll recommend a reduction because he accepted responsibility and agreed to pay $51,280 in restitution.

Although a Depression-era law changed by lawmakers this year let sheriffs profit from jail kitchens, prosecutors said Abston’s setup was a scam.

“A sitting county sheriff is alleged to have defrauded a food bank and a church for his personal gain at the expense of the underprivileged that the food bank serves,” U.S. Attorney Jay Town said in a statement when Abston was arrested in June.

Prosecutors said Abston, who held office in the rural west Alabama county for more than three decades, got his own church, Highland Baptist of Gordo, involved in the West Alabama Food Bank in 2014. Abston then wrote checks totaling some $80,000 over four years to purchase cut-rate food that was meant for the poor and wrongly used it to feed prisoners.

Sheriffs get state reimbursements to feed jail prisoners, and an old Alabama law let them keep any leftover funds. During the four years the scheme operated, Abston got more than $400,000 in food allowance money from the state and other government agencies, prosecutors said.

A law passed earlier this year requires the food allowance to go into a separate account that can be used only for feeding prisoners. It also provided more money to cover the costs.

Abston declined to speak to reporters when he left the Hugo Black Courthouse in Birmingham Tuesday morning. A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 25.

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