State pursues criminal investigation against former Veterans Services Commission director

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PUTNAM COUNTY – The State of Ohio appears set to move forward with criminal charges against former Putnam County Veterans Services Commission Director Kristi Powell following of a nearly 16-month investigation into how funds were handled in the county’s Veterans Banner program.

Putnam County District Attorney Gary Lammers said he was recently contacted by representatives from the office of Ohio State Auditor Keith Faber. Lammers said the notification was made to avoid any conflict of interest. As legal counsel to the PCVSC, Lammers has asked independent counsel to pursue any possible criminal action. To that end, Deputy Chief Legal Counsel for the Ohio Auditor Robert Smith, Deputy Chief Legal Counsel for the Auditor Samuel Kirk, and Thomas Anger were appointed as special prosecutors for the case.

According to Putnam County Auditor Robert Benroth, a review of the banner program began when a county resident contacted him with a concern about how payments for banners were being collected.

“The checks, they were told, should be made payable to an individual employee (Powell) of the Veterans Services Commission,” Benroth said. “That’s a big red flag.”

Because the Putnam County VSC — and all Ohio State Veterans Service Commissions — are funded by a $500,000 property tax, Benroth said the county auditor’s office has the responsibility ensure proper management of funds. With this in mind, he submitted a public records request to the VSC for all records related to the Banner program.

“If a public office has a program that they administer, that they started, that’s done entirely on county time by county employees, that’s public money,” Benroth said. “Every penny that goes by, just like it would be here at the auditor’s office, is public money.

“There should never be a case where I do a good project, but I want the checks to be made out to my personal name. This shouldn’t happen. That’s what triggered the questions.

Benroth said he found inconsistencies while reviewing the financial statements, including inconsistent cash deposits and donors buying banners for those who could not afford them.

“I knew how many (banners) had been ordered and how many had been made,” he said. “I knew there were donations made; some of them were cash.

“I can tell you this, the receipt book that was filled out by the employee only started filling out after I started asking questions. There was money at least a whole year before that happened. We know that with the account we have, not everything is accounted for.

Benroth further determined that Powell, in addition to having checks for Banners written to her personally, also processed the checks through her personal bank account.

With this information in hand, Benroth voiced his concerns to Lammers. The two then contacted Faber’s office in March last year, who initiated a forensic accounting of funds provided to the program and to Powell. That investigation, Lammers said, has apparently reached its conclusion.

“They gave me no guidance on their findings,” Lammers said, adding that he knew attorneys for the state auditor’s office had contact with attorneys retained by Powell. “Nothing has been formally filed, to my knowledge.”

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