Insurance agent challenges county treasurer


By Peter H. Milliken

milliken@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

Incumbent Democratic Mahoning County treasurer Daniel Yemma is being challenged by Republican Christine Lucarell Oliver in the Nov. 8 election.

The county treasurer’s job pays $68,275 a year.

Yemma, who has been county treasurer for more than five years, is a former Struthers city councilman.

Oliver is a licensed insurance agent, whose name became well-known because of her breach-of-contract lawsuit against Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. of Columbus, for whom she is a former agent.

The trial jury’s $42.8 million verdict in her favor was reduced to $2.3 million by the 7th District Court of Appeals; and the Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to hear Nationwide’s appeal.

Yemma said his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration and his experience as a public official make him well-qualified to handle the job as county treasurer.

With a background in banking and financial services and about 10 years as owner of a mortgage and financial services business, he joined the treasurer’s office as chief deputy treasurer in 2007 and became treasurer in 2011.

“My background lends itself very well to the position. The treasurer’s office is basically the bank for the county,” Yemma said.

“As treasurer, I am responsible and accountable to the taxpayers to manage, safeguard and invest their hard-earned tax dollars.”

Yemma is also board chairman of the Mahoning County Land Bank, which administers more than $6.5 million in grants to demolish or rehabilitate dilapidated, tax-delinquent structures.

Of her qualifications, Oliver said, “I have 30 years of administrative background. I have over 25 years of experience in banking, insurance and the financial industry. I also started my own insurance agency from the ground up.”

While maintaining her Nationwide agency, Oliver said she hired, trained, coached and managed all of her staff and developed annual marketing, budgeting and business plans and maintained all files for audit and compliance purposes.

She earned several industry awards, a community service award and a five-star customer service rating.

Her lawsuit alleged Nationwide recruited her and about 400 other agents with the intention of terminating their agencies once they generated a profitable book of business for Nationwide.

However, Nationwide said its objective was “to recruit agents and position them for success, not failure.”

Oliver said the series of thefts and forgeries by Kyheem Underwood, 19, of Campbell, a 2015 summer worker in the treasurer’s office, are the most egregious events in that office.

“This gentleman was indicted three times.... How, in the world, could this have happened? There is a lack of management. They’re not being efficient,” Oliver said.

An assistant county prosecutor said the thefts exceeded $10,000 and that there were three indictments because Underwood did not admit all of his crimes when he was initially charged.

Yemma said he was aware of only three checks and a money order totaling $1,406, which Underwood forged and cashed.

Last month, Underwood, whose job included opening and sorting the treasurer’s office mail, pleaded guilty to one count of theft in office, three counts each of theft and receiving stolen property and six counts of forgery. He’ll be sentenced Nov. 16.

The charges against Underwood arose after Rea & Associates of New Philadelphia, which audits the county’s finances, observed in a June 30, 2015, management letter to county officials that mail to the county treasurer’s office containing tax payment checks “can go unopened for an extended period of time” due to staffing problems.

Yemma said his office, which has 11 full-time employees, including himself, opens and sorts its mail daily, processes it as quickly as possible and continues to work to improve its efficiency in this task.

However, he said, during the twice-yearly real-estate tax collection rush, it can’t immediately deposit all the checks in the bank.

In its 2013 audit, Rea & Associates made the same observation about unopened mail and said the treasurer’s office lacks the resources to ensure timely deposit of checks, resulting in increased risk of error and fraud.

“During our peak season, we go to the bank three to four times a day, sometimes, depositing checks,” Yemma said.

The checks and balances in the treasurer’s office ensure that anyone who steals will be caught, Yemma said.

Since he arrived in 2007, he said: “We’ve never had a problem with the mail until this instance recently.”

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