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MAHONING COUNTY State probes travel charges made by officials



Published: Fri, November 9, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



State auditors decided to look into the matter on their own, an official said.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- The Ohio Auditor's Office is taking a closer look at travel expenses racked up by Mahoning County officials on county credit cards.

Spokeswoman Kim Norris said it's too soon to say whether officials are guilty of wrongdoing.

Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock has been under fire lately for charges for personal expenses she put on county credit cards during trips she took to Philadelphia, Marietta and Cincinnati.

There were also questions raised about a trip she had planned to take to Chicago, but didn't.

Commissioners are in the process of revamping their policies regarding credit cards, cellular phones and pagers. They were expected to discuss the revision at their meeting Thursday, but deferred action because Sherlock was absent.

Hospitalized: Sherlock said she was admitted to Forum Health Northside Medical Center on Saturday and has been transferred to Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Trumbull County. In a statement released today, Sherlock said she expects to make a full recovery and return to the commissioners' office soon.

She said she has battled "a number of serious illnesses over the past year while continuing to work each day," though she did not disclose the nature of her illness.

Sherlock said she has been in contact with the commissioners' office and is working as much as possible from the hospital.

Commissioner Ed Reese also did not know the nature of Sherlock's illness. He said Sherlock told commissioners several months ago that she has some health problems, though she did not go into detail.

"I certainly wish her well," Reese said. "In times like this, politics is not important. Her health is what matters."

Commissioner David Ludt could not be reached to comment.

Sherlock has paid back all the money from the travels, including what she was authorized by commissioners to spend for herself. Prosecutor Paul Gains has said he sees nothing illegal.

But last week, Sherlock said she's handing the matter over to the Ohio Ethics Commission and Ludt called for the auditor's office to look into it.

Ethics panel: Paul Nick, chief investigative attorney for the ethics commission, said his agency is permitted to investigate if a public official violated conflict-of-interest laws, but is not legally allowed to investigate allegations of misuse of a credit card. "Our authority is limited to the ethics laws," he said. "We can look at the question with respect to a potential violation of the ethics law as to whether a public official used their authority to benefit themselves for an improper purpose."

The ethics commission will review documents related to Sherlock's use of county credit cards before it determines if it will conduct an investigation, Nick said.

An investigation into misuse of a credit card would have to be requested by Gains to a law enforcement agency such as the county sheriff's department or the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, Nick said.

Red flags: Norris said her office did not receive Ludt's request. She said members of the auditor's staff noticed some red flags related to travel expenses during the course of a performance audit already in progress for certain county departments.

"We found some information and decided that it would merit some further investigation," Norris said. She would not elaborate.

County Administrator Gary Kubic said the audit staff visited commissioners' offices earlier this week and requested records related to travel expenditures. He said other office-holders have put personal travel expenses on county cards in the past and reimbursed the county, just as Sherlock did.

bjackson@vindy.com




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