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Published: Saturday, 2/7/2004

Kest rings up nearly $3,000 phone tab

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest ran up nearly $3,000 in cell phone calls in 2003, about $1,200 more than the closest tab among other county officials.

Mr. Kest's monthly bills averaged about $246 last year, which was significantly higher than most other elected officials. Sheriff James Telb, who had about $1,800 in cell phone calls last year, averaged about $151 a month.

Commissioner Harry Barlos' monthly phone bill was $60, Clerk of Courts Bernie Quilter's tab was $53, and Coroner James Patrick averaged about $50 in calls, according to county records.

Mr. Kest said one of the reasons his bills are so much higher than other officials is that he was pursuing his PhD at Cleveland State University last year.

“I was in school in Cleveland and I told you I checked with my office constantly,” he said yesterday. “I'm the treasurer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that's why my calls are so high.”

Records indicate a number of the cell phone calls were made to and from a variety of cities, many in Florida, where Mr. Kest obtained a mortgage broker's license Dec. 31.

A solicitation for his mortgage brokerage business dated Jan. 26 listed his county cell phone as a contact number on his letterhead. The letterhead also gives business addresses in Maumee and Bonita Springs, Fla.

He said some of those conversations could have been with Toledo residents who have property in Florida.

A review of Mr. Kest's roaming phone records by The Blade indicates he was in Florida 48 days between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, 2003. Records for November and December were not available yesterday.

Mr. Kest said he can do county business from anywhere as long as he has a phone and a fax machine.

Mr. Barlos and Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak criticized Mr. Kest for listing a county cell phone for a private business. Mr. Kest said he'll probably get his own cell phone for the business now.

Records indicate Mr. Kest reimbursed the county $200 for his personal cell phone use shortly after he was criticized for using a county car when he was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence in August in Springfield Township. His DUI trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Sylvania Municipal Court.

A special prosecutor is investigating Mr. Kest's use of money from a special fund dedicated by law for the collection of delinquent taxes to pay his tuition for his doctoral studies at Cleveland State University.

He paid another $100 to the county Thursday after receiving media calls about having the number of his county-issued cell phone listed on his brokerage business letterhead.

Mr. Kest said his total combined payments of $300 from Jan. 1, 2003, through Thursday probably covers his personal calls for last year.

“If it was $3,000 and I paid about $300, it was probably about right - 10 percent,” he said.”

Mr. Kest, however, doesn't track personal cell phone calls even though he gets itemized bills each month detailing what phone numbers he has called. He said he has no system for accounting for his personal calls.

When he thinks he's made a lot of personal calls, Mr. Kest said he logs it in his head and then makes a payment to the county.

Mr. Kest claimed to be “probably the only” county elected official to reimburse the county for his personal phone expenditures. However, Mr. Quilter paid $48 earlier this month and a total $27 last year for personal cell phone use, records reviewed by The Blade show.

Sheriff Telb began using a private cell phone around September last year, and Mr. Barlos purchased his own phone in December. Mr. Barlos said he's made calls to his family occasionally but doesn't think county phones should be used frequently for private calls - and never for a side business.

“If you find it difficult to distinguish between county, personal, and business calls, the best thing to do is go out and get your own phone,” said Mr. Barlos, who recently switched to a personal cell phone.

Mr. Kest said he hasn't used his cell phone for his private mortgage business. An Ohio Ethics Commission advisory opinion issued in 1996 says Ohio elected officials aren't barred from having outside businesses, but state law prohibits an elected official from “using public times, facilities, personnel, or resources” to conduct a private outside business.

Mr. Barlos and Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak have called for a cell phone policy to be instituted in the county. Ms. Wozniak drew the analogy to the county's new car policy, which was crafted in the wake of Mr. Kest's August DUI arrest.

“We need to define the rules and then create a strict policy,” Ms. Wozniak said. “From what I gathered ... there is not a strict cell phone policy in place and there must be.”

Questions about Mr. Kest's cell phone usage are the latest in a string of recent controversies surrounding the treasurer. Special Prosecutor Mark Mulligan is investigating Mr. Kest's use of $14,683 of taxpayer money for expenses related to his doctoral studies at Cleveland State, including tuition, hotel rooms, books, and travel in a county vehicle.

Mr. Kest was an instructor at Cleveland State, but his contract was not renewed. He said he is now taking classes at another, unidentified university and blamed negative media attention for his departure.

Mr. Mulligan, Ottawa County's prosecutor, said he would consider looking at whether Mr. Kest used his phone inappropriately if his instructions from the court indicated he had the power.

“I've not been approached and I'll have to look at my paperwork about the duties,” Mr. Mulligan said.



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