The Greene County developmental disabilities superintendent, a Harveysburg village council member and two state government administrators were among 26 public officials the Ohio Ethics Commission entered into settlement agreements with last year to resolve alleged ethics violations.
This is an increase from 2016, when the state agency reprimanded 14 public officials.
Settlement agreements are public record but are not publicized, though many of them include a “public reprimand.” The I-Team obtained all of the agreements from last year using Ohio public records law.
Most of the settlements and reprimands were issued in lieu of the matter being referred to a local prosecuting attorney.
This was the case with John LaRock, superintendent of Greene County Developmental Disabilities.
LaRock’s wife Jill worked as a department director for the agency he runs. Before she retired in October 2016, the two frequently both ranked among Greene County’s highest paid employees, pulling in a combined $258,959 last year, according to the I-Team Payroll Project.
Payroll Project: Greene County’s highest paid employees
The LaRocks met on the job and got married. They have worked under a county prosecutor’s opinion that says she can report to him as long as the developmental disabilities board evaluates her performance and approves her salary and leave time.
But ethics commission investigators found that no one had approved Jill LaRock’s evaluations between 2010 and 2012. This became a problem when the agency sought re-accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation and Rehabilitation, which requires annual performance evaluations for all personnel.
“Rather than bring the issue to the Board, (John) LaRock completed the required performance evaluations,” the settlement agreement says.
A public reprimand was issued in January.
Reached for comment, LaRock admits he made a mistake.
“I completed those documents and I shouldn’t have,” he said. “I supported their findings and we have moved on.”
The ethics commission said the performance evaluations had no impact on his wife’s compensation.
158 cases reviewed
Some cases involved a personal benefit, such as steering work to a company they or a family member owned. In others the mere appearance of a conflict was enough for the board to take action, regardless of whether the act was intentional or not.
Ohio Ethics Commission Director Paul Nick Director Paul Nick said these were among 158 cases they handled last year, some leading to settlements, some to prosecution and others dismissed.
He said his agency has increasingly relied on its settlement authority in cases where it appears a clear violation of the law occurred, but it’s not as clear that the official knew they were doing something wrong; or in cases where the official was removed from his or her ability to abuse authority.
“Sometimes you need to right the wrong, and righting the wrong doesn’t always mean criminal court,” he said.
Charles Camp stepped down from the Harveysburg Village Council after the ethics commission found he voted on payments to an auto-mechanic company owned by his son to repair village vehicles. He accepted a public reprimand in lieu of the issue being referred to a local prosecutor.
Camp said he abstained on discussion when it was clear they were talking about working with his son’s company. But he voted on some repair payments.
“I voted on repairs to the trucks not knowing where he was going to take it and he ended up bringing it to my son,” he said.
Ethics officials wrote that the village was contracting with the company before Camp took office and found no evidence that the company received special treatment.
“We got bids from everybody, (and) we ended up getting better bids from him than other people, so we put the work there,” Village Mayor Richard Verga said. “This was a non-problem that got elevated somehow.”
Agency director aided daughter
Two ethics cases involved high-level state employees.
Investigators found Timothy Gorrell, executive director at the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, contacted an agency vendor and asked an account supervisor to meet with and mentor his daughter.
Officials for the vendor, SBC Advertising, suggested the daughter apply for a job and interviewed her.
Gorrell contacted his agency’s legal counsel when it became apparent that his daughter, who was interested in a career in advertising, was being considered for a job. The company did not hire her.
Gorrell accepted a reprimand and agreed that his daughter can’t be employed by any agency vendor, client or regulated party.
Through an agency spokeswoman, Gorrell’s said his only comment is: “The record of self-reporting is on file and there’s nothing else to say.”
In the other state employee case, a former Ohio Department of Transportation official was reprimanded for violating Ohio’s revolving door laws.
Jeff Wigdahl resigned as head of ODOT’s Aggregate Section of the Office of Materials Management in December 2014 and started work with the company National Lime and Stone in January 2015. National Lime and Stone is an ODOT vendor.
State law prohibits former public officials or employees from representing a private employer on a matter he or she participated in as a public employee for 12 months after leaving office.
Investigators found that Wigdahl represented NLS when he attended a meeting at ODOT on behalf of his new employer in May 2015.
Calls to Wigdahl for comment were returned by Thomas Palmer, an attorney for NLS.
Palmer said that Wigdahl attended the conference as a member of a trade association.
Wigdahl accepted a reprimand to resolve the case, Palmer said.
Ethics actions were taken against officials at eight school districts, including three where sports coaches had players buy uniforms, materials and services from companies the coaches worked for or owned.
Another settlement agreement involved four officials from Sycamore Twp. in Hamilton County.
Investigators found three Sycamore Twp. trustees were officers of a club that had a beer concession at a festival. The trustees contributed money to their political campaigns that was raised through the beer sales.
The trustees — as well as the township parks and recreation director — resigned their posts with the club, which also agreed to donate to charity any future festival beer proceeds.
Nick said it’s important to investigate cases even when they don’t involve a lot of money.
“It’s helpful and important for people to know that if you don’t act properly there is a consequence,” he said.