By Maggie Thurber | Special to Ohio Watchdog
It may be legal, but is it right?
Ohio law requires that taxpayers, through county budgets, provide funds to the county sheriff and county prosecutor for the Furtherance of Justice. FOJ funds pay for expenses relating to the performance of official duties and in the “furtherance of justice.”
The amount of the annual appropriation is half the salary of the elected official, which is determined by Ohio Revised Code.
Although there is considerable discretion in determining whether an expense is in the “performance of official duties,” a state auditor compliance supplement says, “these expenditures must be for a proper public purpose.”
So what would be the public purpose of gift cards for employees, bartenders or flower arrangements for the death of an employee’s relative?
There is no public purpose, as far as I can tell, but public tax dollars are being spent on these things just the same.
In a Dayton Daily News investigation, reviewing three years of expenditures from the Furtherance of Justice funds in a seven-county area, it was reported that:
Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser handed out $12,663 in Bridgewater Falls gift cards to his employees and two $100 performance bonuses to interns.
Former Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel frequently dipped into the account for $25 gift cards to Target or restaurants, such as Olive Garden and O’Charleys. The office distributed $550 in $25 gift cards to employees over three years.
The Warren County Sheriff’s Office used FOJ money to pay a pair of $75 bartending fees, once in 2009 and again in 2011.
Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly used FOJ funds to purchase $1,425 in nail files and $3,850 in ads and event sponsorships for groups, such as the Springfield Arts Council and symphony orchestra.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer donated about $25,000, about one-fifth of his office’s FOJ money, toward various charitable causes or for seats at fundraising dinners, including the Boy Scouts and the NAACP.
The Toledo Free Press reports that Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates spent $1,374.90 on flowers.
The Columbus Dispatch reported earlier this year that Fairfield County Prosecutor Gregg Marx’s was under fire for his use of $5,925 in FOJ funds for a telephone town hall during his primary campaign for the office.
In each of these cases, the charges are justified by the officeholder.
“Because of budget constraints, we do not have the ability to give salary increases to my staff, but there are other mechanisms by which I can award their service, and that is what I did,” Gmoser told the Dayton Daily News.
“Anytime that you recognize employees who work for a prosecutor for going above and beyond in a particular case, that increases the morale of an office,” current Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said.
“We’ve had a lot of deaths — not only employees, but employees’ husbands, a kid, brothers, really a lot. And we have six pregnant women here right now; so we use the flowers only for that purpose, for a funeral or a birth,” Bates told the Free Press. “You might think, ‘Oh, does everyone have an orchid sitting on their counters?’ No. But it’s a way of saying, from our office, ‘We’re sorry.’”
The funding of bartenders wasn’t for the purchase of alcohol, which is illegal, but for “that person to be there at the hotel” for a state association meeting. Promotional items and charitable contributions were defended as “reaching out to the public,” “supporting our local community,” “valuable networking” and “educational.”
So how, exactly, do these expenditures further justice?
Ohio’s Ethics Law used to forbid public employees from accepting anything of value for the performance of their duties, but that language was modified in 2005 to clarify that the thing of value cannot be accepted if it is “of such a character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to that person’s duties.”
So it’s not illegal to give gift cards to public employees to reward them when you can’t give them salary increases, but doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of budgeting wages and compensation? If it’s intended as additional compensation or a type of bonus, do they pay taxes on the value?
Do expenditures on nail files, event tickets and donations actually “further justice” or do they just promote the office and the elected official who holds it?
While state association meetings, where you attend educational and other training sessions, wouldn’t be questioned as a part of the official duties of the officeholder, how can you even remotely suggest that paying the wages for a bartender is necessary for the furtherance of justice, much less a good idea?
The flowers for births and deaths is as egregious. Why should taxpayers cover the cost of you — as an elected official — sending flowers to your employees? If it’s important enough to recognize the event, shouldn’t you be spending your own money, rather than the taxpayers’? And if the flowers are from the office, why don’t you just take up a collection?
Bates said, “… it’s a way of saying, from our office, ‘We’re sorry.’” Actually, it’s not. It’s the taxpayers — 99 percent of whom probably don’t even know the employee — saying, “we’re sorry.”
What kind of warped thinking leads a county prosecutor to conclude that such personal actions should be publicly funded?
The worst part for taxpayers is that these elected officials have campaign funds that could be used to cover their attendance at charitable events, flowers for births and deaths, promotional items and supporting the local community. But why use your personal or campaign funds if you can get the taxpayer to foot the bill?
There are legitimate uses for these funds, such as paying informants, providing expert witnesses, witness expenses, and even office supplies. And there are legitimate reasons why sheriffs and prosecutors should have some discretion. But the rules need to be tightened and the terms defined.
State Auditor David Yost intends to do just that, planning meetings with the prosecutor and sheriff associations and issuing a bulletin later in the year. But the changes can’t come soon enough for Ohio taxpayers who’ve had years of paying for things that have nothing at all to do with furthering justice.