By The Packet

Despite an apology and a plea for leniency, a long-time west Alabama sheriff brought down by the lure of easy money is sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

Former Pickens County Sheriff David Abston had sought community service and house arrest, but U.S. District Judge Liles Burke wasn’t swayed, ordering the prison time and $51,285 in restitution to a food bank scammed by the sheriff.

The restitution, which the 68-year-old Abston already had agreed to pay, must be made within 90 days.

“Abston tarnished his office and his badge. He found out today he isn’t above the law. Those who believe they are will find themselves in federal prison,” U.S. Attorney Jay Town said following Monday’s sentencing in U.S. District Court in Birmingham.

“While the vast majority of law enforcement officers are honest and work hard to uphold the law, Abston misused his position of trust for personal gain and will now reap the consequences of his actions,” said FBI Special Agent Johnnie Sharp Jr.

Abston was arrested in June and immediately stepped down. In July, he agreed to plead guilty to one count each of wire fraud and filing a false tax return.

“Sheriff Abston is truly ashamed, contrite and remorseful for the crimes he has committed,’’ his attorneys wrote in court documents filed last week.

“Sheriff Abston’s shame and remorse is deepened by the fact that he has proudly and dutifully served as a law enforcement officer for 41 years, including over 10 years in which he also served in the National Guard as a Military Police Officer,” the attorneys wrote in asking for community service and house arrest. “He fully accepts his responsibility for his misdeeds, and he also recognizes that there must be consequences for his actions.”

Abston was sheriff for 32 years. In seven counts of wire fraud and two of filing false tax returns, federal prosecutors accused Abston of pocketing more than $400,000 in money meant to feed inmates and defrauding the West Alabama Food Bank and the Highland Baptist Church in Gordo, Ala., where he was a member.

The indictments stated between 2014 and 2018, Abston received more than $400,000 in food allowance funds from the state of Alabama and other governmental entities. During that time, state law allowed sheriffs, including Abston, to keep for themselves food allowance money not spent to feed inmates. Federal investigators charged Abston schemed to rip off the food bank, his church and other groups to reduce the amount he actually spent on jail food expenses, increasing the amount of money he could pocket.

Through his plea, Abston admitted that in 2014 he got the food bank to provide low-cost food to his church to help feed the poor. But much of the food was diverted instead to the county jail, which lowered jail expenses. That helped Abston boost his personal income.

The Alabama Legislature has since closed the loophole in the law.

Federal prosecutors wanted Abston to repay $86,336 to the food bank in addition to the 18 months in prison.

The sentence ultimately requires him to repay the $51,285.

In a statement released after Abston apologized in court, the food bank said it is time to move forward.

“The West Alabama Food Bank respectfully accepts former Pickens County Sheriff David Abston’s apology. We sincerely hope that we can all move forward to serve the citizens of Pickens County and all of West Alabama,” the statement read.

The disgraced sheriff said he plans to return to the community.

“While Sheriff Abston is deeply disappointed in today’s sentence, he has accepted responsibility for the wrong he committed and respects the court’s decision imposing consequences for his actions. He will serve his sentence, do what good he can during his period of incarceration, and then return to the community he loves to continue his life of community involvement. Sheriff Abston and his family are thankful for the support and encouragement they have received over the last several months. They know that with the continued support of their friends and community and Sheriff Abston’s personal faith in God, they will make it through this difficult time,” Abston said in a statement released by his attorneys following the sentencing.