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Mahoning Co. judges ask state for an audit



Published: Sat, June 2, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The judges are concerned that the agency used public grants to pay legal expenses in a pending lawsuit.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Just when the head of Community Corrections Agency has cleared one hurdle, another one popped up in front of him.

CCA was given a clean bill of fiscal health in a report issued this week by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

But now the agency's books will be scrutinized by the Ohio auditor's office, at the request of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judges.

"I just have a gut feeling," said Administrative Judge Maureen A. Cronin, explaining why she sought the follow-up audit. "I would feel better if we had another audit and put these issues to rest."

Who requested audit: The ODRC was asked to investigate whether CCA used public money to pay legal expenses for Dr. Richard J. Billak, CCA chief executive officer. The audit was requested by both Billak and the common pleas judges.

Judges were concerned that CCA used public grants to pay legal fees in a lawsuit he and CCA have pending against former county sheriff Phil Chance. Billak denied any wrongdoing, and simultaneously sought the audit to clear his name.

The suit, pending in common pleas court since July 1997, says Chance slandered Billak by publicly saying Billak was going to be indicted on criminal charges. Billak filed the suit on his own behalf and as the head of CCA.

Chance is serving a federal prison sentence for racketeering.

"In no case were state grant funds used to finance the lawsuit," the report says. The audit examined CCA's financial records from June 20, 1997, to Feb. 7, 2001.

Paying for legal expenses: The bulk of the legal expenses were paid from CCA's corporate account, which is made up of nonpublic funds from sources such as interest on cash reserves, income from CCA's graphics department and an annual fund-raiser.

About $6,570 of the legal fees was paid from a "halfway house" account, which receives about 80 percent of its revenue from the ODRC, with the rest coming from such sources as rental income, electronic monitoring and other services.

Since that account was not entirely funded by state money, there was no problem with using it to pay part of the legal fees, the report said.

Removed entry: Billak said even though there was nothing wrong, CCA removed the entry for legal fees in the halfway-house account and moved it to the corporate account May 2, while the audit was in progress.

"It's an allowable cost but we wanted to keep things clean, so we moved it," he said.

Judge Cronin said she expects the state auditor's review to be more thorough than the one done by ODRC because it will examine all of CCA's accounts, while ODRC's audit ability is limited under Ohio law.

She said the auditor's office recommended that judges first seek the ODRC audit, then follow up with a more detailed job by Petro's staff if they wished.

Bjackson@vindy.com




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