Local elected officials reacting to a state audit released yesterday had a consistent message for Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest: Pay back the money.
The Ohio Auditor's office determined that Mr. Kest must repay the county $16,887 for public dollars he spent on expenses related to his graduate studies at Cleveland State University.
The Blade reported in August, 2003, that Mr. Kest was using a fund dedicated by state law to the collection of delinquent taxes to pay for expenses such as his tuition, hotel rooms, and books.
Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery, a former Wood County prosecutor, said spending the money to get a PhD was inappropriate.
"I don't think Ohioans expect to pay for someone's degree in economic development at taxpayer expense," she said yesterday. "And I think it was pretty clear that it shouldn't have been paid for out of that fund."
Mr. Kest did not return a call seeking comment. Last year, he defended using the fund to pay for his studies by saying the knowledge he acquired could help the local economy, which could result in a decrease in delinquent taxes.
Betty Shultz, the Republican Toledo city councilman who is running for Mr. Kest's job, called on Mr. Kest to resign.
Mr. Kest, who is not running for re-election, said earlier this year in a WSPD radio interview that he backs Ms. Shultz to replace him as treasurer rather than her opponent Wade Kapszukiewicz, a Democratic city councilman.
"Many people are unaware that [Mr. Kest's] seat does not expire until September of 2005 even though the election is in November of 2004," Ms. Shultz said.
"Therefore I call upon him to resign in favor of the voter's choice effective the date the board of elections can certify the results. Taxpayers deserve closure on this issue."
Mr. Kapszukiewicz has been running as much against Mr. Kest as he has been against Ms. Shultz.
He pointed out yesterday that Ms. Shultz, in a WSPD-radio debate last week, said that she was happy to have Mr. Kest's support. Ms. Shultz said yesterday that she meant she was pleased to have the support of Mr. Kest or any voter.
"I think the finding by the auditor of state confirms what I've been saying for months that there is a culture of corruption in the Lucas County treasurer's office that can only be fixed by sweeping change," Mr. Kapszukiewicz said.
While the state audit was being conducted, Mr. Kest's expenditures of taxpayer funds for his college education also was the subject of a criminal investigation by Special Prosecutor Mark Mulligan, the Ottawa County prosecutor who was appointed because Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates legally represents Mr. Kest and other county officials under state law. Mr. Mulligan said his investigation mirrors the findings of the state audit.
He said he will try to reach a resolution with Mr. Kest and if he can't, he'll present a case to a grand jury.
In addition to paying restitution, Mr. Mulligan said requiring Mr. Kest to leave office "will be on the table."
Officially, collecting restitution from Mr. Kest would be the job of Mrs. Bates.
She said yesterday that since Mr. Mulligan already has been appointed as special prosecutor, she'll have him collect the money.
If the prosecutor can't collect the money within 120 days, the task falls to the Ohio attorney general's office.
Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber said she hopes Mr. Kest will repay the money soon and the prosecutor's case can be concluded as quickly as possible. As far as the auditor's report goes, she said she thought the findings were to be expected.
"I think we all thought it was inappropriate and the state auditor's report supports that," Ms. Thurber said.
Harry Barlos, president of the board of commissioners, agreed.
"I don't know how you could justify using funds from a dedicated account that a statute said had to be used for [delinquent taxes]," he said.
Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said she doesn't think it should have taken a report by the auditor's office for Mr. Kest to return the money to the county.
"I really believe that when it came to light, he should have rethought that and paid the money back," Ms. Wozniak said.
Last year, in a statement issued through his attorney, Sheldon Wittenberg, Mr. Kest announced that he had placed $14,683 in Mr. Wittenberg's escrow account that would be used to repay the county if the auditor's findings determined that his expenditures were improper.
However, that figure didn't account for the finding by the auditor's office that Mr. Kest's mileage expenditures also must be reimbursed.
Mr. Wittenberg declined comment yesterday.
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