TIFFIN - Eleven years ago, James Nimz married a civil engineer who just happened to work for him in the county engineer's office.
Yesterday, the longtime Seneca County engineer resigned the elected position he's held for 17 years and pleaded no contest to ethics violations for employing his wife, giving her raises, and promoting her to chief deputy engineer.
Mr. Nimz, 62, of Tiffin, declined to comment following the brief hearing in Tiffin Municipal Court, but his attorney said his client was unaware he had violated the law when he married Caroline Minges in 1996. She had been employed by the county engineer's office since 1991.
"I think this is a case of unintended consequences," attorney Stephen Cockley told the court. "I don't think he thought he would be technically violating the law by marrying his wife who was already employed by the Seneca County Engineer's Office."
Visiting Judge Thomas Osborn of Upper Sandusky Municipal Court accepted Mr. Nimz's no contest pleas and found him guilty of the three first-degree misdemeanors.
Before imposing a sentence, Judge Obsorn asked
Mr. Nimz if he planned to retire - he said he did. He asked whether he had any prior criminal or ethics problems - he said he did not. And he asked whether he ever gave any thought to his marriage being a violation of state law - Mr. Nimz again said he did not. The judge then imposed a $1,500 fine, ordered him to pay court costs, gave him a suspended 60-day jail sentence, and placed him on probation for a year.
Special Prosecutor John Allen said afterward that Mr. Nimz should have sought a legal opinion from the county prosecutor before he married Ms. Minges. State law is clear, he said, that elected officials may not employ family members.
"Every time he gave her a raise, it was a violation of the law," Mr. Allen said, referring to the three counts of having an illegal interest in a public contract for which Mr. Nimz was convicted.
As part of a negotiated plea agreement, Mr. Nimz tendered his resignation to county commissioners earlier in the morning and delivered a restitution check to the county for $48,779.
Mr. Allen said the restitution represents the difference in salary and overtime that was paid to Ms. Minges over the past six years compared to what was paid to chief deputy engineers in Huron County, the next largest county in Ohio and in Knox County, the next smallest.
According to county records, Ms. Minges, 47, was hired in September, 1991, at an annual salary of $41,080. When she resigned Aug. 13, she was being paid $73,964 a year.
While the couple had been married for more than a decade, Mr. Allen said the situation came to light early this year when an independent auditor conducting Seneca County's annual audit discovered the relationship. County Auditor Larry Biedelschies brought the matter to the attention of County Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., in February, and Mr. Egbert asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation also was involved.
Mr. Egbert said county life insurance policies that identified Mr. Nimz as Ms. Minges' husband and beneficiary and Ms. Minges as Mr. Nimz's wife and beneficiary had been in the county auditor's office for several years but were never brought to his attention.
Mr. Biedelschies said he never had a reason to examine the insurance documents and had not been aware Mr. Nimz and Ms. Minges were married before the investigation, in part because they had different last names.
Mr. Egbert said the couple was married out of state - in Boone County, Kentucky.
"Once they married, he should have ceased the employment of her," he said. "She was employed before that, but they went out of state and got married and she continued under the same name, Caroline Minges."
County commissioners yesterday accepted Mr. Nimz's resignation without commenting on the reason for his sudden departure. Commissioners Dave Sauber and Ben Nutter praised Mr. Nimz for the work he accomplished on the county's roads and bridges. "I believe our rural bridges are the best in the state of Ohio," Mr. Sauber said. "I consider Jim a good friend, and I'm going to miss him."
The board named Mark Zimmerman, a nine-year employee of the engineer's office, as acting county engineer. The county engineer is paid $87,718 a year.
Mr. Egbert said the county's Republican Central Committee will have 45 days to appoint someone to fill out Mr. Nimz's unexpired term, which runs through 2008. Elections records show Mr. Zimmerman, a Republican, already has filed to run for county engineer.
Mr. Cockley said Mr. Nimz, appointed county engineer in December, 1990, had not intended to run for re-election.
"This merely hastened his retirement," Mr. Cockley said, adding that Mr. Nimz chose not to fight the charges, which resulted from their decision to get married rather than live together and not marry.
"You can fight things. You can spend a lot of time and money and effort and when it all boils down to it: What's the point?" he said.
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