Former Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said he failed to keep proper records but denied misusing funds.
PORT CLINTON -- A special audit of the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office claims that former Sheriff Bob Bratton misspent taxpayer's dollars on haircuts, cigars, shoes, neckties, and season passes to Cedar Point amusement park.
The report released Wednesday by Ohio Auditor David Yost on the audit of financial records in the sheriff's office from 2008 to 2011 shows that Mr. Bratton, who is now the Genoa police chief, made more than $7,000 in undocumented purchases, using the office's Furtherance of Justice fund.
The sheriff, the report said, used a departmental credit card to make $745 in personal purchases on such items as shoes, belts, neckties, reading glasses, cigars, a haircut, a doctor's office co-payment, a watch, books, and a coat, as well as using it to buy two seasons passes in June, 2010, to Cedar Point in Sandusky for $323.
Overall, the audit found $7,214 in purchases Chief Bratton could not provide receipts or invoices for that proved he spent the money for the fund's intended purpose, which is to fight crime. The former sheriff repaid the money to the county on Feb. 10.
"In no way do cigars and Cedar Point passes further the cause of justice," Mr. Yost said in a release. "While I'm glad the citizens of Ottawa County have been repaid, a man of the law should know better than to use a public credit card for a shopping spree."
The state auditor said the former sheriff used the credit card to buy $2,438 in gift cards and $160 in office supplies and made $1,356 in online purchases for personal prescription medicines from a mail-order pharmacy.
"This shopping list is just incredible," Mr. Yost said. "The taxpayers' belts are already tight. They shouldn't have to pay for his belt too."
Chief Bratton, who resigned in September to accept the position as police chief with the village of Genoa, said he didn't intentionally misuse the fund and instead failed to maintain the appropriate records on its use.
"I erred. I made mistakes in my ledgers and my accounting. When it comes to bookkeeping, I did not learn a whole lot of that in the police academy," he said. "I admit it. I did a lot of things wrong. I wish I could go back and change it."
The state auditor said the findings have been turned over to Ottawa County Prosecutor Mark Mulligan. However, Mr. Mulligan said that after discussing the report with the state auditor's office, he doesn't believe Chief Bratton did anything criminal and the matter will not be presented to a grand jury.
"I did have a conversation with an attorney with the state auditor's office. He was of the opinion there was nothing criminal. I looked through it and made that same determination," he said.
Mr. Mulligan said the rules for using the Furtherance of Justice funds were intentionally written ambiguously to give sheriffs broad discretion on how to spend the money.
Chief Bratton said he used the funds to purchase gift cards to rewards citizens for volunteering and to give to employees for birthday and Christmas bonuses, a practice he started after the union agreed to forgo pay raises for two years.
He also said he used the credit card to pay for expenses he believed were related to his job, including dry cleaning of suits and uniforms and shoes and other clothing that were damaged while he was on the job.
Among the sheriff's department practices questioned in the audit was the use of "petty cash funds" in the Furtherance of Justice account. Mr. Bratton told auditors he took money from the fund to pay for out-of-county training, dry cleaning, awards programs, and other events related to the office. He said he reimbursed the petty cash account when he used the credit card for personal purchases, including buying a three-month supply of heart medication.
Sheriff's offices receive annual Furtherance of Justice funding from county budgets, in amounts equaling half their salary. Ottawa County received $26,461 for the fund in 2008 and $27,290 annually from 2009 to 2011.
Mr. Bratton said he will pay the $6,600 that the state auditor charged Ottawa County for the audit and investigation.
"I am picking up the tab for it. It is my responsibility, and I will pay for the investigation. I feel that as an elected official I should pay for it," he said.
Commissioner James Sass agreed with Mr. Mulligan that use of the Furtherance of Justice fund has been interpreted broadly over the years, allowing sheriffs to use the money as they see fit as long as it furthers justice.
"Ottawa County was served very well by Bob Bratton," Mr. Sass said. "I am very appreciative that he made the statement that he is willing to cover the costs of the audit."
Mr. Yost, a former Delaware County prosecutor, recommended that the sheriff's office adopt formal written policies for the petty cash fund and using the Furtherance of Justice funds to pay for employee recognition, incentive, and gift programs, and food or meal reimbursements, including setting limits on expenditures.