COLUMBUS - For nearly 30 years, Patrick Patton was a Statehouse fixture, first as a lobbyist for firefighters' unions and since 1989 for the agency that runs the Ohio Turnpike.
Yesterday, the 62-year-old Patton was a defendant whose clean criminal record enabled him to avoid prison time.
A Franklin County judge placed Patton on probation for two years and ordered him to pay $10,940 in restitution to the Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund. He completed the payment yesterday.
An investigation by the state Inspector General and the Ethics Commission said Patton collected $8,740 in gasoline and mileage reimbursements from the Ohio police and fire pension system while driving a Turnpike Commission car with gasoline that the commission supplied from 1999 to last April.
The amount increased to $10,940 when investigators examined Patton's expenses back to early 1997, when he began to serve on the police and fire pension board. He resigned from that board in August after the allegations became public.
Patton, who retired from his $83,514-a-year turnpike job shortly before the investigation report was released, pleaded guilty Oct. 24 to theft in office, a third-degree felony; and tampering with records, a fifth-degree felony.
Although Patton could have faced up to six years in prison, Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Sheward said he didn't consider him a “candidate for prison” under state sentencing laws.
“While it is not good, it is not an offense of violence. He didn't hit someone over the head. He has lost his job. He's been embarrassed,” Judge Sheward said.
In brief comments in the courtroom, Patton apologized to his family and friends and expressed remorse for what he did.
Inspector General Tom Charles said he “didn't have a problem” with Judge Sheward's decision not to give Patton a prison term.
“Here's a man who was very well-respected and a very credible person. He was put in a position of trust with his own retirement system and then for a little bit of gain, he double-bills. The way to leave and retire is not by going to court,” Mr. Charles said.
Although Patton pleaded guilty to two felonies, he won't lose his $24,462-a-year pension from the police and fire pension fund.
That's because the state didn't need to tap into his pension to repay the police and fire pension fund, said David Buchman, an assistant Franklin County prosecutor.
Judge Sheward received several letters from Patton's friends and colleagues requesting leniency, including Gary Monto, a retired Toledo police officer who is president of the Police and Fire Retirees of Ohio.
“I have had several long conversations with Pat concerning his current legal problems and I feel very strongly that he and his family have already suffered a great deal,” Mr. Monto wrote in a Nov. 21 letter.
The Aug. 6 report by the Inspector General and Ethics Commission documented 170 instances from 1999 to 2001 in which Turnpike Executive Director Gino Zomparelli and at least 30 other high-ranking turnpike employees accepted free meals, gifts, golf outings, sports tickets, and luxury seating at sports events with food and beverages included from turnpike contractors.
Two days after the state released the report, Mr. Zomparelli resigned under pressure from Gov. Bob Taft.
Jack Marchbanks, who was appointed interim executive director, has released the names of six high-ranking employees who have been suspended without pay and five who have received letters of reprimand for taking gratuities.
Dan Castrigano, deputy executive director-chief engineer, and general counsel Thomas Amato received three-day suspensions without pay.
Those suspended for one day without pay are James Steiner, chief financial officer-controller; Timothy Ujvari, maintenance engineer; Rob Fleischman, assistant chief engineer; and Kerry Ferrier, traffic engineer.
Those who received written reprimands are Douglas Hedrick, staff construction engineer; Richard Lash, director of safety services; Nancy Siler, chief accountant; Domenic Ferrito, construction supervisor, and Scott Brady, engineering technician.
The five-member Turnpike Commission is set to meet on Monday to appoint Gary Suhadolnik, director of the state Department of Commerce, as the new executive director. Mr. Suhadolnik is a former state senator from the Cleveland area.
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