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State auditor's office could open investigation into Bell Administration SUV purchases

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Councilman D. Michael Collins allegation against the Bell administration regarding the purchase of two SUVs will be reviewed by the state auditor's office.

The Blade
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State Auditor Dave Yost’s office may open an investigation of the Bell administration’s purchase of two sport utility vehicles that cost taxpayers a combined $69,000.

A 2013 Chevy Tahoe, purchased from a metropolitan Toledo dealer, is equipped with the luxury package costing $1,386, off-road package costing $1,395, rear bucket seats for $520, four corner strobe lights for $450, and specialty floor mats. It joined another vehicle assigned to Toledo Mayor Mike Bell’s office — a 2011 GMC Terrain that cost taxpayers $26,516.

Councilmen D. Michael Collins and George Sarantou questioned the purchases last year.

Council authorized $3.75 million in 2010 and $3.25 million in 2011 for “replacement vehicles” for the public service department and the streets departments. Mr. Collins said the two SUVs did not appear on a list of city inventory last summer, and he demanded answers about who was driving them and why they were bought when the city was facing an austere budget.

Mr. Collins went a step further and later asked the state to investigate, even after City Law Director Adam Loukx, who reports to the mayor, said the purchases were done appropriately.

“Can you tell someone you are going to buy three street sweepers and only buy two street sweepers and a SUV?” Mr. Collins said. “It wasn’t on the up and up and it was a misrepresentation of truth and the mayor seems to have a Teflon surface because nothing sticks to him. Don’t come to city council and say you need to buy XYZ for millions of dollars and then say: ‘Oh, by the way, we are going to slip one by you.’”

Jen Sorgenfrei, Mr. Bell’s spokesman, said the mayor welcomes an investigation.

“I think they will look at the law and as they look at everything that was done, they will find everything is on the up and up as we have said all along and as the law director has reinforced,” she said.

The two SUVs are regularly used by the mayor and his senior staff during the workday. No one in the mayor’s office is assigned to take a vehicle home, Ms. Sorgenfrei said.

Cheryl S. Gray, a complaint specialist for the state auditor’s special investigations unit, said in an email to Mr. Collins that his complaint has been forwarded by the special audit task force to the Auditor of State’s Toledo financial audit region.

“It is the policy of the Auditor of State’s Office that allegations of public corruption, requests for special audits, or requests for additional audit procedures are referred to the Auditor of State’s Special Audit Task Force,” she wrote.

Last year, Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat said the vehicles would be used to transport dignitaries and investors.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.

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