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Report reveals a government in trouble

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By Jessica Singleton

On Sept. 23, the Owen County grand jury indicted Judge-Executive Billy O’Banion, former Deputy Judge-Executive Renaee Gaines and Treasurer Gayla Lewis with criminal charges. The charges were centered around theft and mismanagement of county funds.

O’Banion was charged with theft, theft of services and official misconduct. Gaines was charged with two counts of theft, complicity to theft of services and official misconduct. While Lewis was charged with complicity to theft and two charges of official misconduct. The arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 7 and is open to the public.

The Owen County Fiscal Court has the power to hire and fire county employees. Gaines was placed on administrative leave and later resigned. County Attorney Charles Carter said the law states that O’Banion will remain in office. He can be removed from office only if he is convicted of a crime.

The grand jury investigation went much farther than the conduct of these three officials. Commonwealth Attorney Jim Crawford said he presented the grand jury with evidence about the functioning of the entire county government.

In response to this investigation, the grand jury issued a report that outlined seven problems inside the county government. County Attorney Carter said the recommendations will be treated as a mandate and corrected as soon as possible.

2007 fiscal court audit exit conference

The report stated that the results of the 2007 fiscal court audit were presented to O’Banion and Lewis. This report revealed that Gaines was overpaid, increasing her salary from $35,000 to $49,043. It was also found that Gaines’ W-2 forms for 2006 and 2007 were under- reported by $2,553 and $11,121 respectively. Another of the audit’s 11 points of concern was that O’Banion was paid a yearly training incentive of $3,302 twice in one year. Both Gaines and O’Banion repaid the county the funds. On the exit interview report O’Banion stated, “The County Judge-Executive conducted his own internal investigation and found no reason to consider any further action, other than making adjustments to the payroll process.”

None of the magistrates or County Attorney Carter were invited to this exit conference and they were not given a copy of the report.

2008 fiscal court audit

The audit of the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008, is currently in progress. The grand jury recommends that when the audit is complete, the results be presented to the fiscal court.

Magistrates’ $300 per month

expense allowance

The grand jury found that a $300 monthly expense allowance given to the magistrates is illegal. The expense allowance is permitted for service on fiscal court committees. The committees that magistrates were serving on were not fiscal court committees and did not qualify for the $300 allowance. The grand jury recommends that these funds be repaid to the county.

Magistrate Ray Smith said the fiscal court was told that the committees they were serving on qualified for the allowance.

“This has really confused us,” he said. “It’s a mess.”

Now that the law has been clarified, he said the fiscal court will correct the mistake.

Ambulance service billing

The report stated some ambulance bills were waived for some users. The indictments state that O’Banion had his ambulance bill of $632.20 waived. Also, the ambulance bills for several other people were waived from Oct. 1, 2007, to July 31, 2008. The report recommends that a procedure be immediately put in place to make sure that all ambulance users are treated the same.

Magistrates’ classification as

full-time employees

The Owen County Magistrates are considered full-time and receive employee benefits, including retirement and health insurance. The law requires the magistrates work at least 100 hours a month to qualify as full-time. The grand jury requests that the magistrates provide documentation of their hours.

Magistrate Theresa Davis said the magistrates keep track of all hours worked and that they provided those records to the grand jury. She said she works about 120 hours a month.

“This is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job,” she said.

Smith also said that he works about 120 hours a month driving roads and talking to the public about county business.

County reimbursement of expenses incurred by employees

The law allows for reimbursement of documented mileage and expenses incurred by a county employee while on the job. The grand jury could not locate a written policy outlining exactly what can and cannot be reimbursed. The recommendation is to make the reimbursement process clear and to require documentation of the expenses.

Continued investigation

The seventh and final request of the grand jury is for the next grand jury and the circuit court to continue the investigation and determine if the problems have been corrected.

Davis said the fiscal court will do whatever needs to be done to correct the problems brought to light by the grand jury.

The fiscal court will have a special meeting on Thursday at 9 a.m. in the courtroom to address the grand jury recommendations. The meeting is open to the public. To see a copy of the report and the 2007 audit results, go to The News-Herald Web site at www. owentonnewsherald.com.