One of the commissioner's trips raises 'all kinds of questions,' the county prosecutor said.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains said that before Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock requested an Ohio Ethics Commission investigation of her county credit-card use, he told her to call the agency or he'd do it.
Based on Sherlock's recommendation, the commissioners voted Thursday to ask for the probe by the ethics commission. The commissioners also agreed to a proposal by Commissioner David Ludt to have the Ohio Auditor's Office investigate the matter.
Discussions: Sherlock said at Thursday's meeting that she came to the decision to have the ethics commission investigate her use of credit cards after discussions with county Administrator Gary Kubic. She never mentioned any talks with Gains.
But Gains said he called Sherlock on Wednesday -- a day before the commissioners' meeting -- after reading in The Vindicator about questions raised concerning a trip she took in August 2000 to Marietta and Cincinnati on county credit cards. It was the third time her use of county credit cards was questioned in the past two weeks.
"I told Sherlock on Wednesday, I said, 'Look, Vicki, I would suggest that you consider sending this down'" to the ethics commission, Gains said. "I said, 'I'm going to call them. I want their opinion on this.' She probably should have said she made the decision after consulting with me."
Sherlock was out of town Friday and could not be reached to comment.
Prior decision: Gains had previously decided not to request that the ethics commission investigate Sherlock's use of county credit cards based on questions raised about a six-day trip to Philadelphia she took using the card and a canceled trip to Chicago, which included charging an airplane ticket for her boyfriend, Leo Jennings.
The ethics commission will investigate all three incidents, said Gains, even though he doesn't see anything improper with the Philadelphia and Chicago issues.
"If it was just the reimbursement on the credit card, nada, nothing," Gains said. "But in light of the trip to Marietta and Cincinnati, I told her, 'You have to have an independent agency review this stuff.' There's all kinds of questions that are going to now require some legwork in my opinion. The ethics commission will do the legwork."
Gains said the county's travel forms, which have been used for years, include an area for noting personal expenses incurred on county credit cards. To him, that's a clear indication that such expenditures are permitted. Ohio law requires the county be reimbursed for those expenditures within 30 days.
"Based on that form, there is consent for those expenditures," Gains said. "If they pay it back, there is no violation."
Adding it up: Sherlock and Jennings took trips to Marietta and Cincinnati in August 2000. According to county credit-card receipts, Sherlock charged a $52.22 stay at a Marietta motel on Aug. 22, 2000, as well as a $333.47 bill for a stay at a Cincinnati hotel from Aug. 22, 2000, to Aug. 25, 2000. Also, Sherlock attended a commissioners meeting Aug. 24, 2000, to authorize her Marietta trip.
Sherlock has produced a copy of a duplicate receipt from the Cincinnati hotel showing that it overbilled her for staying on Aug. 24, 2000. But Sherlock said she had the county pay for two hotel stays on the same day, Aug. 22, 2000, when she traveled more than 200 miles through the night from Marietta to Cincinnati.
"When I read the dates in the newspaper, I said, 'This doesn't make sense. What's going on here?'" Gains said. "It's gone too far now. Quite frankly, I'm not going to bring the ethics commission and cry wolf every time. I am elected to make decisions such as this, and I'll take the heat if people disagree with me. However, that article raised a lot of questions."
Because of the questions, the commissioners plan next week to adopt a policy that will do away with county credit cards except for gas cards issued to the sheriff's department.
Sherlock has said she will be cleared in the investigations for her use of county credit cards, but the county should get rid of most of them so no one else will have to go through what she has experienced.