Saturday, April 16th, 2011
County employees placed on paid leave
Investigators looking into payroll records of veterans service director, assistant
By William Kincaid
CELINA - Two longtime Mercer County employees were placed on paid administrative leave Friday afternoon due to allegations of improperly accounting for leave of absences/sick leave.
Mercer County Veterans Service Director Tom Risch and administrative assistant Barb Phillips told the newspaper they were placed on leave following a vote by four members of the county veterans service commission.
Commission president Harry Sunderland, who issued a release Friday stating an emergency meeting was to be held just hours later at the sheriffs' office to discuss charges or complaints against a public employee, would not tell the newspaper official action taken at the meeting or his opinion of the matter.
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey said his department officially started investigating the matter Monday after he met with the accuser, whose name he would not release.
"To avoid the appearance of impropriety and foreclose any allegations of records being destroyed during the investigation, it is my recommendation that the board place (Risch and Phillips) on paid administrative leave until the investigation is completed," Grey wrote in a letter to Sunderland dated April 15.
Risch and Phillips denied any wrongdoing and said their first concern is the more than 1,000 veterans they serve each month. Risch and Phillips are the only county officials accredited to report veteran claims to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Risch said.
"It was a complete shock to both of us," Risch said of today's action.
Risch said on May 10 he will have been with the department for 23 years and said Phillips has been there 15 years.
The investigation is continuing.
"We have some follow up that we're going to do this weekend so I'm hoping that Monday I have a better idea," Grey told the newspaper.
Grey said he was contacted April 8 by Amy Ikerd of the Mercer County Prosector's Office about allegations involving the veterans service office that she thought could possibly be criminal.
Grey said he assigned detective Chris Hamberg to look into the situation on Tuesday. The department made a public records request for payroll records.
"We started actively looking into it on Tuesday," Grey said. "There's some unanswered questions and I think it's important to point out at this point it is administrative leave based on ... questions, and we need to find some documents to answer our questions."
Records and documents will determine what happens next, Grey said, later adding it's very important they no one draw conclusions at this point.
"The main key is ... for everybody to remain objective and take a good solid look at it," he said.
Risch, who attended Friday's meeting after being notified about it by the newspaper, said Hamberg, detective Lance Crum and Sunderland took control of the veterans service office about 2:30 p.m. Deputies took the keys from Phillips and Risch, he said.
"We have nothing to hide," Risch said. "Everything is documented. I don't understand."
"It's like someone punched me in the stomach," Phillips said, adding she felt humiliated.
Risch said he understands the county prosecutor's office and the sheriff's department are just doing their jobs. He said he just wished they would have asked Phillips or him what documents or records they were searching for and the matter could have been resolved that way.
Grey said his recommendation for paid administrative leave was to protect Risch and Phillips from any future allegations of tampering with records as well as taxpayers if anything did happen.
"And at this point we don't know," Grey said.
"I'm confident everything is going to come out OK," Risch said.
Risch said he is responsible for reporting veteran claims for compensation, pension, education, insurance, transportation and other issues. He and Phillips are the only employees of the office.
Sunderland would not say whether the office will open Monday.
The veterans service commission is comprised of five members appointed by the common pleas court judge, according to the Ohio Revised Code. Some of their duties include employing staff to carry out the commission's duties and establishing policies and procedures for the administration of the commission and the veterans service office. The commission may employ an executive director and clerks as necessary, who are paid from the county allotment of veterans service funds, according to the ORC.