Delaware County Sheriff Walter L. Davis III resigned this morning. Davis was the subject of a criminal investigation conducted by Union County Prosecutor David Phillips.
Davis allegedly “misused” public money during a training trip to the FBI Academy. In plain speak: he stole public money. While the exact amount of the alleged “misuse” has not been reported, it appears to not be a lot of money.
Phillips gave Davis a pretty sweet deal: in exchange for his resignation and an agreement to repay the money, Davis will not face criminal prosecution. Normally, theft by a public official is a felony regardless of the amount, and the offender is barred from ever again holding public office. Davis doesn’t even face a misdemeanor. He doesn’t pay a fine or face jail or prison.
Two things bother us:
First, the news reports suggest that Davis received this sweet deal before the entire investigation was completed. Phillips said to the Dispatch: “There were a variety of expenses that had been flagged, and a variety of allegations about this office and I was still separating the wheat from the chaff.”
An audit still has to be completed, but regardless of the result – even if thousands of dollars of additional stolen misused funds are found, it appears that Davis will not be prosecuted.
Second, it appears that Davis almost certainly recived some form of preferential treatment. It did not takes us long to find multiple examples just within the past year of public employees who were indicted for theft in office. In a number of these cases, the amount of the theft also appeared to be relatively small:
- In Newburgh Heights the former village Mayor and his wife were indicted on charges of theft in office for conduct including allegedly falsifying time sheets and stealing misusing a car battery and a water pump for a pool.
- In Athens, an employee of the Southeastern Ohio Voluntary Education Cooperative was indicted on charges of theft in office allegedly misused the agency’s credit card to pay her personal bills.
- In Columbus, a school principal was indicted on a felony charge of theft on office (as well as two other felonies) and other charges when she mis-represented her salary on forms to make her children eligible for subsidized school lunches. She received a benefit of about $1,300.
- In Lakemore, a village administrator was charged Monday with felony theft in office after he allegedly kept the money the village received from the sale of two old garage doors from the fire department for scrap and used the village credit card to buy gas for his personal vehicle. He recived a benefit of about $1,300.
It is possible Phillips did not feel that he had a strong case – perhaps this was all, as Davis claims, a paperwork snafu or misunderstanding about reimbursement rules. But if that was the case, Phillips did Davis a tremendous disservice by not simply saying that this was a civil, not a criminal, matter.
The better explanation is that this was just a sweet deal. The tell is in Phillips’ justification for the deal. He said, “The goal is to get the misspent money back” and to remove the person from office. We respectfully disagree. Restitution to the taxpayers and removal from office are only part of the goals of the theft in office statute. The other goals – punishment of offenders and deterrence of future offenders – need to be acknowledged as well.
So . . . this is what happens when one Republican Office Holder conducts another investigation of a Republican Office Holder? Who investigates the investigators?
UPDATE: The media on Monday confirmed our worst suspicions about this deal. Phillips confirmed to the Dispatch that, as part of the deal, an investigation by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (run by a Republican Attorney General) into other allegations of theft misuse of funds would be ended. Here is the key quote from Phillips: “Whether those would have merit, I can’t tell you. Whether they’d rise to the level of ethics violations or criminal violations, I can’t say.”
It, thus, appears that the special prosecutor agreed to not prosecute Davis before he even knew what crimes (if any) Davis committed. How can this be justified?
The message going out to officeholders in Ohio today is loud and clear: go ahead and steal. If (a big if) you are caught and an investigation might prove embarrassing or reveal other crimes or ethics violations: no problem. Just offer to resign and pay back a part of the money; all questions will stop and you will walk away free. Sweet.