WRAL Investigates

Wake sheriff pulls name off group's appeal for money

Posted February 8, 2016 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2016 7:25 a.m. EST

— The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association generates millions of dollars in annual revenue and has millions more in the bank.

The association provides leadership training, ethics training and updates on the impact of court decisions, administers a procurement program to purchase law enforcement vehicles and serves as a lobbyist for and information clearinghouse for sheriffs across the state.

"Everything we do as a staff is designed to support the sheriffs as they support the citizens of their community," said Eddie Caldwell, executive director of the nonprofit.

On its latest tax return, the sheriffs' association reported an annual budget of more than $4 million. That inclues $197,000 in revenue that comes from dues that sheriffs pay. Another $1 million comes from a program that houses less-serious offenders, keeping them in underpopulated county jails and out-of-state prisons, while other funds come through government grants.

The biggest chunk of the association's revenue, nearly $2 million, comes from fundraising.

The sheriffs' association, like many organizations, solicits donations through the mail. The letters, which are sent on behalf of the local sheriff, ask for a $25 donation to become an honorary member of the association.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, worried that his constituents were being misled, has asked the group not to use his name.

"I had some people, quite a few people, started calling me, especially the elderly, thinking it was more of a bill," Harrison said.

They worried that, if they failed to donate, there would be consequences, he said.

Caldwell said there is no intention to pressure donors.

"The letters are written to prompt people and to educate people about what the association does, but not to pressure anyone," he said.

Harrison said that, even though he isn't comfortable with the use of his name for fundraising, the association is a valuable resource for sheriffs across North Carolina.

"There's no problem with the sheriffs' association," he said. "On the other hand, this is my constituency here, and they elected me to protect and serve them. If they have a concern about the verbiage in that letter, then I've got a concern about it."

Much of the money raised goes into the bank. The latest sheriffs' association budget shows savings of $3.5 million.

Nearly half of group's expenses go to pay staff, with three of the association's 25 employees making more than $100,000 per year. Caldwell's salary and benefits total $330,000, or about twice what the highest-paid sheriffs across the state make.

As a comparison, the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, a law enforcement group that represents law enforcement officers in 11 states, reports double the operating revenue of the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, but its leader makes about half of what Caldwell does.

Caldwell's pay is set by the association executive board, made up entirely of sheriffs, and he said they simply recognize the value in what he does. He is the association's chief executive, legal counsel and lobbyist.

"When I came, we were paying bills month to month. When you have the degree of responsibilities and the demands that are placed on this association, you don't want to be paying bills month to month," he said.

Still, former Columbus County Sheriff Chris Batten said that he complained about what he calls Caldwell's "very excessive" compensation.

Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck, who is a past association president, praised Caldwell for helping make the organization "head and shoulders above what it used to be."

"He has proven his value to our association over the years," Buck said.

The association's executive committee used comparative compensation analysis of other nonprofits to help determine Caldwell’s benefits package, but he declined to offer specific examples.

Caldwell said he's reformed how the organization manages its finances and that all his actions and the association budget are an open book.

"Everything we do is transparent with the 100 sheriffs," he said.