Has special treatment been accorded to recently indicted former Highland County Board of Commissioners’ clerk Rhonda Smalley?

An answer to this rhetorical question is not anticipated nor necessary.

Questions have been asked since Smalley reportedly resigned – without the usual two weeks’ notice – on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017. In her brief letter of resignation, Smalley thanked commissioners for "the opportunity to work alongside you for the county. I have enjoyed my experiences here. I have taken a role as a business administrator for another company. I wish you all the best."

Almost two months later, commissioners issued this statement: "Following a routine review of bills paid through the commissioners' office, a questionable credit card charge was discovered. After a more in-depth review of recent charges, other charges were discovered. At that point, Mrs. Smalley was notified of the issue and chose to resign her position with Highland County."

By resigning on Dec. 10, did Smalley think the matter would simply go away, or were there implications that it might?

On Feb. 6, a Highland County grand jury handed down a two-count indictment against Smalley. She is charged with misuse of a credit card, a fifth-degree felony, and theft in office, a fourth-degree felony.

Prior to the grand jury indictment, The Highland County Press had contacted the Highland County Board of Commissioners, the Hillsboro Police Department, the Highland County Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio Auditor of State’s Office and asked about any pending investigations involving the former clerk.

While it is understandable in certain cases that an investigatory office may have just cause not to reveal its possible involvement, this just doesn’t – on the surface – appear to be one of those cases.

For the record, Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera confirmed immediately that his office was not contacted to investigate Smalley’s alleged offenses.

Beth Gianforcaro from Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office, after being contacted on Jan. 31 and again this week, told The Highland County Press on Feb. 7: “Thank you for reaching out to the Ohio auditor’s office regarding your questions about whether the Ohio auditor's office is involved in an investigation with the Highland County Board of Commissioners or the Hillsboro Police Department. It is the policy of the Ohio auditor's office to neither confirm nor deny whether or not we have an ongoing investigation. Thank you again for reaching out to us.”

The Hillsboro Police Department also neither confirmed nor denied its involvement.

However, at the Jan. 31 county commissioners’ meeting, board president Shane Wilkin was asked by Highland County Republican Party Central Committee member Barb Cole who was handling the Smalley investigation – which was earlier confirmed by Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins.

Wilkin replied that the Hillsboro Police Department was handling the investigation.

When Sheriff Barrera was asked on Feb. 7 why his office was not involved, he said he was told that the alleged activity occurred within the city of Hillsboro and it was therefore turned over to the police department.

Still, the allegations, according to a Feb. 7 prepared statement signed by commissioners Wilkin, Terry Britton and Jeff Duncan, involve Smalley’s supposed use of a county credit card. This would seem to make the alleged offense a county matter – or perhaps a state auditor’s matter – but not necessarily a city police department matter.

Unless we’re missing some significant information, Smalley isn’t being investigated for shoplifting at a Big Box Store on the north side of town. She’s being investigated for an alleged misuse of a county credit card.

Highland County commissioners issued this prepared statement at their Wednesday, Feb. 7 board meeting related to Smalley's resignation and the ongoing investigation.

"Following a routine review of bills paid through the commissioners' office, a questionable credit card charge was discovered. After a more in-depth review of recent charges, other charges were discovered. At that point, Mrs. Smalley was notified of the issue and chose to resign her position with Highland County. The county prosecutor was notified, and all documentation of the questionable charges were compiled, copied and turned over to the Hillsboro Police Department.

"The Highland County Policy Manual specifically forbids the use of county credit cards for personal use. Even though this was discovered through a routine review of bills received, policy and approval procedures are being reviewed for improvement to limit the exposure. Highland County will not tolerate the misuse of public funds and will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. We are confident that this matter will be appropriately handled through the justice system within Highland County. This will conclude our comments as the case works its way through our court system."

By my count, the commissioners referenced the county six times in their prepared statement, yet they do not include the county sheriff in the investigation. Why not?

With all due respect to the Hillsboro Police Department, why wouldn’t the county commissioners consult with the county sheriff, who is a longtime law enforcement officer in Highland County?

Perhaps there is a logical reason. But the commissioners insist: “This will conclude our comments as the case works its way through our court system.”

So we, the taxpaying public, may never know.

Moreover, it is unclear exactly when the commissioners requested the Hillsboro Police Department to investigate Smalley. Did the HPD investigation begin prior to Smalley's Dec. 10 resignation, which was reportedly prompted by the commissioners' acknowledgment of alleged wrongdoing?

Is there an appearance of possible special treatment for the former five-year county employee? Smalley is charged with misuse of a credit card and theft in office. Where were these alleged offenses committed, to what extent and in what monetary amounts? Will this information eventually be released?

On Jan. 25, 2018, in response to a public records request sent to the commissioners and Highland County Auditor Bill Fawley, a reply came to The Highland County Press from Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins as follows:

“In response to your request regarding the release of documents regarding credit card purchases in relation to former commission clerk Rhonda Smalley, at this time I regret to advise that we are unable to comply with said request.

“At this time, and pursuant to O.R.C. section 149.43(A)(2), those documents are confidential law enforcement investigatory records that pertain to a law enforcement matter and have a high probability of disclosing the identity of an uncharged suspect and disclosing investigatory techniques. While your request was not made directly to law enforcement, the recent decision of the Ohio Supreme Court protects the records which are being used in a pending investigation, even if the records are maintained by someone other than law enforcement. 2016-1115 and 2016-1153. State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Pike County Coroner’s Office, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-8988. As such, we are unable to comply with your request at this time.

“Thank you for your interest in this matter and thank you for your understanding of our position in complying with the law. Should you wish to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

I respect the county prosecutor’s response. However, as of the Feb. 6 Highland County grand jury indictments, I think we can rule out the “disclosing the identity of an uncharged suspect” argument. (And for the record, I agree with the dissenting opinions in Cincinnati Enquirer v. Pike County Coroner’s Office, especially Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy, who called the 4-3 decision the equivalent “to building a foundation on quicksand.”)

County officials did, however, comply with a follow-up records request on the former clerk’s salary and expenses. Suffice it to say that the salary was well above the county’s per-capita income, and the clerk's overnight travel expenses were, at the very least, questionable for a county that says it is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the elimination of the Medicaid managed-care organization sales tax and the recent reductions in the permissive sales tax. Surely, the clerk's attendance and expenses for County Commissioners Association of Ohio (CCAO) conferences is something that could be handled a little more economically, at least going forward.

Let's remember, as recently as Jan. 17, 2018, the county auditor presented the permissive sales tax revenues and said they were at least at a four-year low. At that meeting, Wilkin added: "Since the drop-off of the MCO (Medicaid managed-care organization sales tax) dollars to the county, we're down $195,600 in actual dollars. The average (decrease) is just under $50,000 a month. We've seen a 6-percent drop since October. When we passed the budget at $10.3 (million), we did say we'd have to keep a close eye on it."

Does that include keeping a close eye on overnight travel costs for an office clerk at taxpayers’ expense? One would hope.

As one longtime public official told me this week, “It’s hard enough to be trusted as a public official of integrity. We shouldn’t give any appearance of impropriety.”

Indeed.

The Highland County Press has asked the county for contact information in order to get Mrs. Smalley’s side of this story. Thus far, the county has not provided any contact information.

Mrs. Smalley is welcome to contact me at (937) 840-9490 or (937) 764-1341 or by email at roryeryan@gmail.com.

I may be wrong – and I’m good at being wrong – but I think there’s more to this story.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.