Investigation at DTF underway

LISBON – For the second time in 11 years, the Columbiana County Drug Task Force was closed temporarily while state agencies investigate possible financial irregularities at the DTF.

“There is an investigation going on,” confirmed county Sheriff Ray Stone, who is chairman of the DTF board of control, which is made up of chiefs from participating police departments and county Prosecutor Robert Herron.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (BCI) has already been called in to investigate, and the state auditor’s office is scheduled to review DTF books starting Monday.

Stone said it all began when a possible “irregularity” with the DTF books was brought to his attention on Nov. 20. The next day, after having reviewed the books himself, Stone said he closed the DTF and changed the locks to the office, which is located in the basement of the county jail/sheriff’s office complex. To avoid any conflict of interest, Stone said he also asked BCI and the state auditor’s office to conduct the investigation, after conferring with Herron.

“Once I took action, no one could get in there except me, and I wouldn’t let anyone in there alone until BCI arrived,” Stone said.

The DTF remained closed for the next two weeks while BCI began processing the office for possible evidence, and the office has since reopened.

During this period, Stone said the board held an emergency meeting and suspended DTF Director Dan Downard, who is from the Lisbon Police Department and had been director since 2007. Wellsville attorney Chris Amato confirmed that he is representing Downard, and he declined comment at this time.

Downard is currently on paid administrative leave from the Lisbon Police Department, according to Police Chief Mike Abraham, who said this was done “to protect Dan and the village while the investigation is going on.”

Downard was replaced as director by Lt. Brian McLaughlin of the sheriff’s office, who previously served as DTF director from 2001 to 2007 before transferring back to the sheriff’s office.

This is the second time McLaughlin has been pressed into emergency service at the DTF. His 2001 appointment came in the aftermath of a scandal over the theft of $18,728 from a DTF safe by an agent, who was later sentenced to one year in prison for the crime. The DTF closed for six weeks that year while the initial probe was conducted.

A special prosecutor was appointed in the 2001 case, and Stone expects that could occur again in this instance, depending on what the investigation yields.

Stone said the suspected problems have nothing to do with drug cases being investigated. “I have no reason to believe any of the cases were affected. I just had a suspicion about problems with the books,” he said.

The controversy comes at a time when only the sheriff’s office, Leetonia and Salem have police officers assigned to the DTF. The DTF had as many as eight police officers assigned to it at one time or another during its 20 years of existence, and Stone said some police departments were considering returning before this occurred.

“I hope this doesn’t jeopardize that,” he said.