LISBON - A state audit report issued this week states a former county employee inflated her husband's payroll records by $5,273, not the $459 she entered a plea to six weeks ago.
Ohio Auditor David Yost issued a finding for recovery against Christina and Jordan Phillips after a special audit by his office determined she altered her husband's payroll records while they both worked at the Columbiana County Engineer's Office, resulting in Mr. Phillips being overpaid by $5,273.
"The people of Columbiana County shelled out money for hours that were never worked, and they should be repaid immediately," Yost said in a news release.
Mrs. Phillips, 33, state Route 172, Lisbon, pleaded no contest on April 1 to a single charge of tampering with payroll records, which is a misdemeanor since the amount involved was less than $1,000. She was found guilty by county Municipal Court Judge Mark Frost and sentenced to probation, fined $250 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 that he was aware of his wife's activities. His paychecks were directly deposited into their bank account.
Mrs. Phillips worked as an administrative assistant for county Engineer Bert Dawson from 2005 until Aug. 17, 2012, when she reportedly quit after he confronted her. Her husband worked as a summer employee in the county water and sewer department, which is under the operational control of the engineer's office, from 2004 until Aug. 8, 2012.
One of Mrs. Phillips' duties was to process payroll, and sometime last summer, another employee advised Dawson of a possible discrepancy between the hours Mr. Phillips worked and the amount he was being paid. Dawson contacted the prosecutor's office and state auditor, which launched its probe.
County Prosecutor Robert Herron said at the time the state probe had determined Mrs. Phillips altered her husband's payroll records to include hours he did not work, resulting in him being overpaid by $459 between July 1 and Aug. 31, 2012. The special audit went back to Jan. 1, 2009, however.
Herron said he only learned about the finding for recovery recently following the April 1 hearing and after the plea deal had already been reached with Mrs. Phillips. He provided the newspaper with a copy of the report his office received from the state auditor's investigator, who concluded Mr. Phillips had been overpaid by $459, and there was no mention of record-tampering extending beyond last summer.
"The amount he indicated that we could use in the criminal case, that we could document and prove, was the restitution she was ordered to make in the case in municipal court," Herron said. "In a criminal case, you can only charge what you can prove."
The prosecutor's office will not pursue additional criminal charges in the matter based on the new allegations because Herron said this is a civil finding for recovery. Besides that, he said his office has a binding plea agreement.
"The (plea) deal covered the situation, the whole situation. That was the clear understanding of the parties," Herron said, and to act otherwise after the fact would open his office to charges of "bad faith" dealing and "questionable ethics."
Herron said Dawson was included in the discussions about how the case was handled. "He was entirely on board with the disposition and plea of the case," he said.
So what of the $5,273 finding for recovery? "That's something we're going to have to explore with the state auditor's office," Herron said, reiterating that he believes it to be a civil matter, which would require a lawsuit be filed to seek recovery of the money.
Brittany Halpin, a public information officer for the state auditor's office, said findings for recovery go first to the local county prosecutor to pursue either criminally or civilly. If the local prosecutor declines, the matter is referred to the Ohio Attorney General's Office for possible action.
The special audit recommended the engineer's office "develop specific written procedures for making adjustments to employee payroll." The report also noted the office needs to have a policy addressing when employees marry, such as the Phillips, creating a situation where one has job responsibilities that directly affect their spouse.