By Lance Mihm
Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has ordered that Auglaize County Director of Elections Jean Burklo be removed from her position and that the entire county elections board be publicly reprimanded after finding several incidents of improper conduct.
The state also will continue overseeing the county elections office, as it has done since an investigation began in late October.
Through a news release issued Tuesday, officials from Blackwell's office say Burklo's violations "with the laws governing petitions, public records, office administration and the voting process are inexplicable and inexcusable. She appeared fully aware of the impropriety of her conduct and offered no defense of her actions."
Burklo, who has been director for 12 years, will be removed from the position on April 15. The elections board has been ordered to promptly meet to begin selection of a new director and deputy director. A meeting has been set for 9 a.m. Monday.
The investigation began after former Auglaize County Deputy Director Ken Nuss sent a letter to the state describing various actions by the elections board and Burklo in violation of Ohio election laws. One of those actions included Burklo allowing a judicial candidate to alter his declaration of candidacy after it had been filed with the elections office, which is a violation of Ohio Revised Code.
The investigation report from Blackwell's office says Auglaize County Commons Pleas Court Judge Frederick Pepple went to the elections office on Dec. 12, 2003, to file his candidacy and petition for the March primary election, but learned a page in the five-page petition was notarized improperly.
Pepple told Burklo he was waiting for a telephone call from the Ohio Supreme Court on notarization requirements for candidate petitions. Burklo then advised Pepple to wait to file the petition, but he decided to file it anyway, the report says. Burklo then accepted the petition and board clerk Josie Schaub issued Pepple a receipt for filing a five-page petition with 113 signatures, the report says.
Pepple then returned within minutes and went into Burklo's private office. The report says "exactly what transpired between the director and the judge is unclear," but that it was "uncontroverted" that Judge Pepple left the office with one page of the petition.
Burklo then instructed Schaub to alter the receipt book so it appeared Pepple filed a four-page petition with 97 signatures.
"Director Burklo did nothing to stop him (Pepple) or to alert her board, the county prosecutor or this office of that conduct, even though the alteration of the filed petition violated Revised Code 3501.38," the report says. "She admitted she told clerk Josie Schaub to alter the receipt book to reflect the altered filing."
In response to the investigator's request for an explanation of her actions, the report says Burklo stated she was "in shock that Pepple had removed part of his petition."
When asked why, after recovering from shock, she had not advised board members, the county prosecutor or the state office of what had transpired, she had no response, the report says.
The investigator then asked Burklo "to explain why, if she was in a state of shock, had she immediately instructed board clerk Schaub to alter the receipt book. Again, director Burklo said she had no explanation for her actions," the report says.
The report then moves on to the election board members, who are Vernon Naber and Diana Hausfield, both of Minster, Larry Fledderjohann of St. Marys and Wanda Kogge of Wapakoneta.
The report says board members were not certain of what had happened and did not seem alarmed, were not upset that Pepple's petition was altered and were not concerned that Burklo had failed to notify them of the alterations to the petition.
"The most frequently stated reason for the board members' lack of concern and subsequent failure to investigate was that this had been a 'no harm, no foul' situation; that is, Judge Pepple was running unopposed, so no other candidate would have been affected by this action," the report says.
The report also says former employee Nuss claims Pepple's petition was not the first to be changed. Nuss alleges that a New Knoxville school board member's petition also was changed, but the report says Burklo, board members and two clerks denied knowing anything about this incident.
"However, the handling of Judge Pepple's petition is sufficient evidence of a substantive violation of law," the report says.
Other incidents of improper conduct listed in the report include faulty ballot preparation. Ohio law requires judges to be listed on a nonpartisan ballot, but the 2004 Auglaize County general election absentee ballots contained the political party affiliation of each judge and justice, the report says. Board members told investigators they saw no need to investigate because the problem was corrected after it was discovered.
"Whoever prepared the ballot layout to include the party affiliation of judicial candidates was either ignorant or uncaring of the election law," the report says, adding that reprinting those ballots cost the board money and time.
A breach in security procedures in October 2004 also was listed on the report. The report says Burklo allowed someone who was neither an election official nor the computer company's representative to access the board computer that contained the ballots for the Auglaize County 2004 general election and would be used to compile the results of the election.
The report also lists problems with office personnel and what their positions include. It says the board perceived Nuss, who was deputy director, "as the director's subordinate, rather than her partner, and was treated accordingly."
Board members also allowed "the director unlimited and unquestioned authority," the report continues. "They are content to let the director run the show, acting only when necessary."
The report says board members neglected their duties and expected the director to do their job, as well as her own. It also says the board lacks knowledge of fundamental election law, procedure and administration.
The board members have been directed to prepare and adopt written policies and procedures on board office operation and personnel matters and to prepare written descriptions of the duties and responsibilities of every staff member.
Election board members refused comment. Burklo, who makes $34,076 annually also denied comment on the report.