County cash repaid

LISBON – The couple at the center of a state audit probe have repaid the money the wife was accused of defrauding from the Columbiana County Engineer’s Office.

County Prosecutor Robert Herron said Christina and Jordan Phillips agreed to make restitution in the amount of $4,814 rather than his office filing a civil lawsuit to collect the money.

“They chose to forego the lawsuit by paying the entire balance,” he said.

Ohio Auditor David Yost issued a finding for recovery against the Phillips in the amount of $5,273 after a special audit released in May by his office determined Mrs. Phillips altered her husband’s payroll records to include hours he did not work while they were both employed at the engineer’s office, resulting in Mr. Phillips being overpaid by the amount.

The audit finding occurred six weeks after Mrs. Phillips had pleaded no contest to a single charge of tampering with payroll records, a misdemeanor since the amount involved was less than $1,000. She was found guilty and ordered to make restitution to the engineer’s office in the amount of $459.

Mr. Phillips was not charged because there was insufficient evidence indicating he was aware of his wife’s activities because his paychecks were deposited directly into their bank account.

When the finding for recovery in the much higher amount was announced, Herron said he, too, was surprised because the charges he pursued were based on the report received from the state auditor’s investigator, who concluded Mr. Phillips had been overpaid only $459, and there was no mention of the higher dollar amount or the fact the state probe was continuing. Herron provided the Journal with a copy of the report.

Since Herron already had a binding plea deal in place that covered the crime, his only other option was to file a civil lawsuit to seek recovery of the additional money or let the Ohio Attorney General do so instead.

Herron said he contacted the Phillips’ attorney and told them he planned to take legal action unless they made restitution by Oct. 31, which they have done. The $4,814 represents the $5,273, minus the $459 previously paid by Mrs. Phillips on the tampering charge, with all of the money going to the engineer’s office.

Mrs. Phillips worked as an administrative assistant at the engineer’s office from 2005 until Aug. 17, 2012, when she reportedly quit after being confronted. Her husband worked as a summer employee from 2004 until Aug. 8, 2012.

One of Mrs. Phillips’ duties was to process payroll, and the state investigation determined that in 2012 she included hours he did not work, resulting in her husband being overpaid by $459. The special audit, however, covered the period dating back to 2009 and determined Mr. Phillips had been overpaid a total of $5,273.

Herron defended his handling of the situation, again pointing out the criminal probe mentioned only $459 had been misappropriated, and the state’s investigator was told in advance of the plea deal with Mrs. Phillips and had no objection.

“There was no mention at any time the audit was ongoing” and that a finding for recovery in a much higher amount was going to be issued, he said.

Yost’s office apologized to Herron for the confusion in a letter dated June 27.

“We should have made clearer in our communications with the news media that, because of the higher level of proof required in criminal cases, only some money subject to findings for recovery may be covered as restitution in a criminal case. Some improperly spent money can only be recovered in a separate civil action. We are sorry confusion over this distinction happened, and we will be more careful in the future,” wrote Chief Deputy State Auditor Robert R. Hinkle.

While gratified by the apology, Herron said a Morning Journal editorial on the situation unfairly suggested he was reluctant to pursue the finding for recovery. “There was never any question that an effort was going to” be made to collect the money, but he had to decide what approach to take, Herron said.

“I think the editorial in this case, and others, have simply chose to ignore the facts,” he added.