MAHONING COUNTY Officials to seek probe of card use
One commissioner said there were irregularities related to county credit-card charges made by another commissioner.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- In light of questions raised about the use of Mahoning County credit cards by Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock, the commissioners agreed today to call for investigations by the Ohio Auditor's Office and the state Ethics Commission.
But the commissioners postponed a vote, proposed by Commissioner David Ludt, seeking the suspension of all county credit-card use. They plan to update the policy next week on the use of county credit cards, cellular telephones and pagers. Ludt and Sherlock support eliminating county credit-card use except for gasoline purchases.
Ludt wants a formal policy to "prevent further irregularities." He proposed the motion calling for the auditor's office to investigate, and Sherlock sought an investigation of her use of county credit cards by the ethics commission.
In a letter today to Ohio Auditor Jim Petro, Ludt specifically pointed to Sherlock's August trip to Philadelphia for what was called a "smart growth strategic planning session."
"It has come to light through various sources, including the media, community activists, and Commissioner Sherlock, that there were irregularities connected with charges made on the Mahoning County credit card in relation to this trip," Ludt wrote in the letter.
Among the irregularities, Ludt wrote, were:
U Sherlock traveled for a longer period of time and spent more than the $700 authorized in a commissioners' resolution.
U She was accompanied by her boyfriend, Leo Jennings, his two children and her two kids. "There has been mention that she booked a more expensive two-bedroom suite for her stay in order to accommodate such a large number of people, all appearing on the county credit card."
USherlock "obviously bought meals for all six and charged them to the county credit card."
U The session "was not an organized event, but loose research allegedly conducted" by Sherlock. "She now claims she never informed the board of commissioners that she was attending a conference, but rather was 'conducting research and gathering information on planning and development.' When an item appears on the agenda as 'smart growth strategic planning session,' the implication is that it is an organized event."
Response: When asked Wednesday to provide more information about the six-day trip she took to Philadelphia, Sherlock declined to comment. Sherlock said she plans to make a public presentation about her findings sometime later this year.
"I've done everything I possibly can to clear this up," Sherlock said. "I intend to move on and not talk about it anymore. I will be dealing with issues of substance."
Ludt also questioned Sherlock's planned trip to Chicago with Jennings. The county booked a ticket for Jennings, but the trip was canceled and Sherlock paid the county for the nonrefundable ticket.
"But the question remains as to the legality of these charges for nonwork-related items being charged to a county credit card," Ludt wrote.
Cincinnati trip: Besides the Philadelphia trip and the canceled Chicago trip, questions have been raised recently about a trip Sherlock and Jennings took to Marietta and Cincinnati in August 2000.
According to county credit-card receipts on file with the auditor's office, Sherlock charged a $52.22 stay at a Super 8 Motel in Marietta on Aug. 22, 2000, as well as a $333.47 bill for a stay at the Hampton Inn in Cincinnati from Aug. 22, 2000, to Aug. 25, 2000. Also, Sherlock attended a commissioners meeting Aug. 24, 2000, to authorize her Marietta visit.
Sherlock said the bill from the Hampton Inn was a mistake and that she checked out late on Aug. 23.
Sherlock produced a copy of a duplicate receipt from the Hampton Inn showing that the hotel gave the county credit for overcharging her one day on her stay there.
Sherlock said that should put to rest any controversy surrounding questions about how she could be in Cincinnati and voting at a commissioners meeting here on Aug. 24, 2000.
But Sherlock said she and county employees cannot find any documents from American Express, the county's credit-card company, showing that it credited the county's account for the extra day. Sherlock said her office has contacted American Express to get copies because she cannot find any in her office to see if credit was given for the overcharge.
"It's possible it didn't get credited by American Express," Sherlock said.
Credit: The duplicate receipt that Sherlock provided to The Vindicator shows a $91.84 credit for the overcharge given Nov. 30, 2000. That overcharge was not listed on the original receipt and the original Hampton Inn bill with the $91.84 charge was paid by the county on Dec. 8, 2000.
Sherlock said the county fought for more than three months to get the charge removed by Hampton Inn and only paid the full amount, including the overcharge, after the hotel agreed to first credit the county's credit card. But Sherlock is unsure about whether American Express credited the county's account.
Phone calls: The updated receipt from the hotel lists the phone numbers of nine calls, costing $57.95, made from Sherlock's and Jennings' room, including one to Sherlock's parents for $9.02; three to Jennings' cell phone number, costing $15.65; one to Struthers City Hall for $5.74; two to the commissioners' office for $16.97; one to an Ameritech voice mailbox for $5; and one to an unidentified caller for $5.57.
Sherlock said her personal calls were under the $25 per diem she is allowed by the county for daily expenses.
Sherlock again took aim at what she called her political enemies trying to discredit her with questions about her use of county credit cards.
"My political foes will continue to go down this road," she said. "But it's frivolous of them to engage in character assassination. It's time to move on."
Activist's stance: Not so fast, said Tom Zamary of Poland, a political activist who has expressed concern about Sherlock's credit-card use.
"The continued effort at deception is indicative of the problem," he said. "She's the boss and she's saying this is a screwed-up system. She should look in the mirror to see who's responsible for the problem."
Also, the Democrats of the 17th District, a local political organization, are meeting at 6 p.m. today at the Poland Baseball Association hall on Sheridan Road to discuss the results of its investigation into the county's credit-card system.