The ethics commission waited for completion of the state audit before launching its own probe.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- With one state investigation just completed, the travel habits of Mahoning County Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock are once again under a state agency's microscope.
The Ohio Ethics Commission is looking into allegations that Sherlock abused a county credit card on trips she took last year to Marietta, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
The state auditor's office just completed a six-month check into the matter and issued its report Wednesday. The only finding for recovery was for $242 Sherlock had charged to the county during the Cincinnati trip. She had repaid that money while the audit was going on.
Prosecutor Paul Gains referred the matter to both the auditor's office and the ethics commission at the same time, in November 2001.
David Freel, executive director of the ethics commission, said he deliberately waited until after the audit was finished to begin his department's probe.
About the probe
The ethics panel will incorporate the audit report into its investigation, eliminating the duplication of efforts by two state agencies.
"We knew the auditor's office was conducting a thorough investigation into the financial aspect of this issue," Freel said.
He was not sure how long the ethics probe will take, but said it will "certainly be at the top of our docket."
If an ethical violation is found, the offender could be charged criminally, Freel said. In most cases, ethics violations are first-degree misdemeanors.
Any potential violation would be referred to the prosecutor's office for criminal action. Gains said if that happens, he would most likely seek appointment of a visiting prosecutor.
At least two local political groups -- the Accountability Tax Force and the Democrats of the 17th District -- have publicly called for the credit card issue to be presented to a special grand jury, but Gains doesn't expect that to happen.
"I don't see any reason at this stage to bring witnesses before a grand jury," he said. "To me, the audit report seemed more like an indictment of the [county's credit card] policies, not of any individuals."
Change in record
The groups specifically want an investigation into why the word "Cincinnati" was typed onto a journal entry authorizing Sherlock's travel to Marietta. The word was apparently added, without commissioners' knowledge, after the Marietta trip was approved.
The auditor's report noted that investigators could not determine who changed the record, and suggested that commissioners look further into the matter.
"This altering of documents raises serious questions about the possibility of collusion to cover up theft in office by Commissioner Sherlock," ATF president Debbie Taylor said in a written statement.
Commissioner Ed Reese said he had not yet read the audit report in depth so was not sure what action commissioners will take.
Gains said the information he sent to the auditor and ethics commission last year included documents that had been submitted to him by the Democrats of the 17th District, which has roundly criticized Sherlock and commissioners for their handling of the matter.
That was to "ensure a complete, unbiased review" by both agencies, he said.