State auditor examining fund that gives sheriffs, county prosecutors ample spending discretionWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When county budgets shrink, prosecutors and sheriffs can count on at least one source of money: the Furtherance of Justice Fund (FOJ). But by autumn, they may no longer be able to depend on unfettered access to that cash.
The FOJ is funded by local tax revenue. Officials are free to use the allowance how ever they choose as long as they deem their purchases necessary to perform official duties and “further justice,” according to the relevant statute.
The officials have extensive discretion as to what constitutes furthering justice. The state auditor’s office has a list of permissible purchases but the guidelines are broad. The list includes witness expenses, mileage coverage during official business, meals, mementos and retirement gifts, law books, training, office equipment, courtroom expenses and a few others. The statute, last modified in the ’90s, is vague, said William Owen, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Auditor’s Office.
For some, “furthering justice” means paying for employee training or law books, office supplies or undercover operations. For others, it means paying for luncheons or promotional items. In one case, former Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton used the fund to pay for his clothes, haircuts and Cedar Point tickets.
State Auditor Dave Yost is examining the validity of using the money for charitable donations, employee lunches and promotional items. He will commence meetings with the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association to discuss new parameters in the coming weeks. Owen said the goal is to put together a bulletin about the changes by fall.
Vague and wide open
Some within the Prosecuting Attorneys Association are not happy.
“It’s vague and wide open and I would prefer to keep it that way,” said John Murphy, executive director of the association. “The prosecutor is an elected official and is responsible for what he’s doing and if he’s not using the money properly he can be thrown out of office.”
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said it would be impossible to make a list of every possible expense that a prosecutor could defend as furthering justice.
“They want to control everything,” she said. “The buzz comes from when someone does something crazy. You take an oath, you get elected; if the public thinks you are not doing your job because you bought the grand jurors’ coffee with the FOJ fund then they can throw you out of office.”
Bates uses much of her $59,331.50 FOJ fund for supplies, newspaper subscriptions, books, training, member dues and caring for witnesses. This might include buying clothes for a witness if he or she does not have anything nice to wear to court, or covering the transit fees and hotel costs for experts that take the stand, said John Borell, assistant prosecutor.
Bates said her office spends some of the FOJ fund on plaques or awards for employee recognition. Lunch expenses totaled $785.45 in 2011.
As for the coffee? The amount spent to keep jurors and staff caffeinated during 2011 totaled $3,628.47. Bates’ bill also lists $1,374.90 worth of flowers.
“We’ve had a lot of deaths — not only employees, but employees’ husbands, a kid, brothers, really a lot. And we have six pregnant women here right now; so we use the flowers only for that purpose, for a funeral or a birth,” Bates said. “You might think, ‘Oh, does everyone have an orchid sitting on their counters?’ No. But it’s a way of saying, from our office, ‘We’re sorry.’”
Paying for items with FOJ money is quick and easy. Jeff Grey, president of the Buckeye Sheriff Association likened the fund to a personal checking account. Lucas County Sheriff James Telb said securing money from the annual budget could take up to three or four days, compared to the immediate checks he and his assistant can write from the FOJ fund.
Telb said the benefit of his FOJ fund, which totals $44,595, is that he can write a check for quick cash. This comes in handy, for example, when an undercover operation requires an informant to buy drugs. Telb’s office also uses the fund for training, equipment, informant compensation, dues and supplies.
The fund also paid $356.30 to replace inmates’ lost property in 2011. Sometimes inmates’ personal belongings get misplaced when they are taken into custody, Telb said.
The fund also covered $1,020.60 worth of lunches that year.
“The only time we do a lunch is if we’re at a meeting somewhere out of town and we reimburse individuals that bring their receipts back,” Telb said.
Some of these instances include lunch meetings with the Wood County Sheriff’s Office, lunch during terrorism training activities and trips to Tony Packo’s to discuss homeland security, according to the expense report.
Both the sheriff’s office and the prosecutor’s office have had to use their FOJ funds to fill in general budget holes. Owen said the FOJ fund was intended to aid criminal investigations and that offices must always use their initial budgets for items like supplies if they already have a line item designated for that purpose.
The problem is that shrinking county budgets have pushed prosecutors and sheriffs to use the FOJ fund to cover supplies like pens and paper, Murphy said. Regardless of county tax revenue, the state mandates that county commissioners make the FOJ fund available each year. If the prosecutor or sheriff does not use up the whole amount by the end of the year, they have to give it back to the county. Because the statute sets the FOJ at half of the official’s salary, the amount can change if the official’s salary does.
Bates’ office has lost $680,000 since 2008 in salary allocations alone.
Her supplies budget has been cut by $20,000, her postage line shrunk from $23,000 to $20,000 and her contract repairs budget shrunk from $12,000 to $3,000. Her training budget was $4,354 in 2006. Now, it is $0.
The county’s funds have plummeted as sales tax and real estate tax revenue have dropped, as investment income has dropped and as the governor’s local government fund has been slashed.
Telb has experienced a similar squeeze. Budget cuts forced his office to lay off 30 employees a few years ago, although retirements have allowed his office to bring most of the laid-off employees back, he said.
Telb said he also has to use some of the FOJ fund for typical supplies.
His supply expenses totaled $5,802.48 in 2011.
“We spend a lot of money on supplies because we’re basically running a 500-resident hotel here (the jail) — you know how much we spend on toilet paper?”
But both Telb and Grey said they thought the auditor’s office should tighten the guidelines.
“There is no definition — it’s what I think is what’s in the furtherance of justice — and that’s where the problem lies,” Grey said. “I give Dave Yost a lot of credit for being willing to try to do this. FOJ has been around for a long time and it’s one of those things we cannot afford to lose, but people get in trouble because nobody would sit down and define it.”