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MAHONING COUNTY Commissioners to drop use of most credit cards



Published: Fri, November 2, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Commissioners are asking for an investigation.

By DAVID SKOLNICKand PETER H. MILLIKEN

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS

YOUNGSTOWN -- It will probably prove to be an inconvenience, but Mahoning County will do away with most of its credit cards, said Vicki Allen Sherlock, the commissioner at the center of the credit-card controversy.

The county has 51 credit cards, about half of them American Express cards and the rest gas cards, Sherlock said. All of them will be eliminated except for gas cards issued to the sheriff's department, she said. The other two county commissioners, Ed Reese and Dave Ludt, have said they support the proposal.

"It's going to be difficult under the new policy, but that's how we're going to have to proceed," Sherlock said. "I think this is the best way. It's very difficult to operate without a credit card, but we'll adapt."

The policy will be approved by the county commissioners next week.

"We need to talk to everyone about the policy first," she said. "You can't just snap your fingers and it all goes away."

When the new policy is put into place, county officials and employees wanting to take business-related trips will need to submit purchase orders with cost estimates before the trip and then receive travel vouchers.

The controversy: During the past two weeks, questions have arisen about trips Sherlock took since August 2000 to Marietta and Cincinnati, and Philadelphia using county credit cards as well as a canceled trip to Chicago.

At Ludt's recommendation, commissioners agreed Thursday to have the Ohio Auditor's Office investigate Sherlock's use of county credit cards. Commissioners also agreed to support a motion from Sherlock to have the Ohio Ethics Commission investigate her use of county credit cards.

"I'm confident I'll be cleared, but I'm equally confident I won't satisfy my critics," Sherlock said.

In a letter to state Auditor Jim Petro, Ludt cited a number of irregularities with Sherlock's use of county credit cards. They include: She used the card to buy meals for her boyfriend, Leo Jennings, his two children and her two kids on the Philadelphia trip; she spent more than the authorized amount for the trip; and gave the implication that she was going to a conference when it was actually "loose research allegedly conducted" by Sherlock.

Personal use: Sherlock said she is not the only person in the county to use a county-credit card for personal use on county business.

"We are clearly allowed to use it for personal use if we reimburse for the expenses," Sherlock said. "It has to be for something related to the trip, such as a meal or a hotel stay or a phone call. If you have someone buy furniture, that's something else."

Sherlock has been quick to blame her political enemies for publicizing stories about her use of county credit cards.

Commissioners are also considering toughening policies on the use of county cellular telephones and pagers.

Group's action: In a unanimous voice vote Thursday evening, a private group, the Democrats of the 17th District, called for appointing of a special prosecutor, convening of a special grand jury, having the state auditor conduct a full audit of Mahoning County's credit-card practices, and informing the FBI of the matter to ensure a "fair and thorough investigation."

Juanita Rich, a former Campbell city councilwoman and a member of the group, made a motion calling for Sherlock's resignation. Her motion was defeated after Mark Belinky, the organization's president, said Sherlock is entitled to due process and a presumption of innocence and he didn't think the group should appear to be conducting a witch hunt.

"Their recommendations are just laughable. I personally turned over the travel issue to the [Ohio] Ethics Commission, and I look forward to their investigation and review," Sherlock said. "This group is made up of people who have run for office and been rejected by the voters. Their sole purpose is to throw mud at somebody and hope that it sticks, but it won't stick to me," she added.

skolnick@vindy.com




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