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Cell phone sales lead to warden’s ouster

POSTED: March 24, 2014 8:14 p.m.

The warden of the Effingham County Prison has been allowed to resign after a state Department of Corrections investigation revealed cell phones confiscated from prisoners were being sold without authorization.

Ronald Spears initially was suspended without pay Jan. 22. He had been warden of the prison since February 2003. Department of Corrections investigators concluded that because of the evidence, the allegations against Spears were substantiated.

The cell phones were sold to Pace Butler, a company that buys and sells used cell phones. The Corrections Department investigated a claim that Spears used the money from the cell phone sales for personal gain.

Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie informed the board of commissioners’ office that cell phones appeared to have been sold, and McDuffie said he asked for the investigation after being alerted by county finance director Joanna Wright that something was amiss.

Prison staff interviewed during the investigation told authorities they had no knowledge of confiscated cell phones being sold.

Most of the cell phones taken at the prison are given to the Effingham Victim Witness Assistance Program. But when prison staff started seeing some of the same phones, Spears stopped taking confiscated phones to Victim Witness, he told investigators. Instead, he took them to his home to get them out of the prison, starting around 2008.

Spears said he took approximately 100 phones to Victim Witness but there was no record of the donation. He had a box in his office in which he put the phones and once it was full, he would take the box home. The box held approximately 200 phones.

Spears also said his son found a box of old cell phones in the garage and asked what he intended to do with them, and he told his son to “do whatever he wanted with him.”

Spears said he thought the money obtained from selling old cell phones would be good for the employee benefit fund, and the prison received a check for $165 from Pace Butler. The prison also received a check for $2,500.

Spears’ son also received several checks from Pace Butler totaling nearly $300 for cell phones, and the checks were mailed to Spears’ residence. He told investigators he was “just trying to help (his) kids” and never thought it was against policy do so. Since his son did not have a job or a checking account, Spears endorsed the checks.

“I didn’t know this was against policy or that I was violating any law,” Spears said in his written statement to investigators.

Prison staff told investigators that they confiscated from 30 to 40 phones a month, though there were some months when no illicit phones were taken.

“At no time was Warden Spears given permission to sell the cell phones for personal use,” investigators wrote in their report.

The company also was told to make checks out to the county, rather than to the prison, and county administration was told that a check for $2,500 was awarded for a promotional event. The company said the warden had been contacted and he was upset the check’s payee was being changed. Spears also said the phones sold to Pace Butler included confiscated and personal cell phones.

The prison was named the county correctional institution of the year in 2011 by the state Department of Corrections.

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