Ho­gan: State, feds should investigate K-9 case

The Phoenix - - LOCAL NEWS - By Michael P. Rel­la­han mrel­la­han@21st-cen­tu­ry­media. com

WEST CH­ESTER » The Ch­ester County Dis­trict At­tor­ney, act­ing on in­for­ma­tion from the county’s fi­nan­cial watch­dog, has re­ferred a re­quest for a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the county Sher­iff’s Of­fice and its han­dling of funds for the sher­iff’s K-9 unit to out­side law en­force­ment agen­cies, sources say.

On Mon­day, Dis­trict At­tor­ney Tom Ho­gan re­quested in sep­a­rate let­ters that the state At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice or the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice in Philadel­phia take on an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into, and po­ten­tial pros­e­cu­tion of, al­le­ga­tions of what he called sus­pected il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity in­volv­ing the K-9 funds, based on in­for­ma­tion that his of­fice re­ceived from the Ch­ester County Con­troller’s Of­fice.

County Con­troller Margaret Reif, a Demo­crat who won elec­tion to the row of­fice last Novem­ber, has been re­view­ing the fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions of the K-9 Unit, which is op­er­ated through the of­fice of long­time Repub­li­can Sher­iff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, but which is not sup­ported with county tax dol­lars.

Ho­gan de­ter­mined that his of­fice could not con­duct an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the fi­nances of the K-9 unit it­self be­cause of an ap­par­ent con­flict of in­ter­est, he wrote in let­ters to the agen­cies.

“The in­ves­ti­ga­tion was ini­ti­ated by an au­dit of the Ch­ester County Sher­iff’s Of­fice by the Ch­ester County Con­troller,” Ho­gan wrote in the let­ters, dated Sept. 10. “The in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volves al­le­ga­tions of mis­use and fraud re­gard­ing funds col­lected by the Sher­iff’s Of­fice for their K-9 Unit, but used for other per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal ex­penses.

“The DAO (Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice) do­nated funds to the K-9 Unit, mak­ing the DAO a po­ten­tial fact wit­ness/ vic­tim and cre­at­ing a con­flict of in­ter­est. A crim­i­nal com­plaint has not been filed at this time. Ch­ester County Con­troller Margaret Reif and her staff have the ba­sic in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” he wrote. Ho­gan said that there may be over­lap­ping state and fed­eral le­gal is­sues in the case, so he for­warded his re­quest to both agen­cies.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro and U.S. At­tor­ney Wil­liam McSwain said Tues­day that their of­fices would not com­ment on the specifics of the mat­ter.

“We will re­view the re­fer­ral re­quest from the Ch­ester County Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice when we re­ceive it,” said Joe Grace, a spokesman for Shapiro’s of­fice. A spokes­woman for the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice de­clined all com­ment.

A re­quest from a lo­cal dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice to other law en­force­ment agen­cies for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that a crim­i­nal in­quiry will be opened by those of­fices. Those agen­cies must first de­ter­mine whether a proper con­flict ex­ists with the lo­cal pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice be­fore pro­ceed­ing. But it does move the mat­ter one step closer to the vir­tu­ally un­prece­dented situation of a Ch­ester County elected of­fi­cial be­ing the sub­ject of a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

No charges have been filed in the case.

Reif said in a state­ment to the Daily Lo­cal News that her of­fice had taken the step of ask­ing the D.A.’s Of­fice to investigate the K-9 funds af­ter con­duct­ing an ex­haus­tive au­dit of three years of records pro­vided by the sher­iff’s of­fice last month — only part of the nine years of doc­u­ments her of­fice had de­manded be pro­duced pur­suant to a sub­poena it is­sued in July.

“What we found raised more ques­tions than we have an­swers,” she said Tues­day. “It was enough to raise suf­fi­cient con­cern that what was there wasn’t right.”

At­tor­ney Daw­son R. Muth of the West Ch­ester law firm of Lamb McEr­lane, solic­i­tor for the sher­iff’s of­fice, ac­knowl­edged be­ing in­formed about the re­fer­ral from Ho­gan’s of­fice.

“We wel­come an in­de­pen­dent, non-par­ti­san re­view of the situation,” he said Tues­day.

Reif, who took of­fice in Jan­uary, has been ac­cused by Muth and oth­ers of con­duct­ing a “witch hunt,” charg­ing that her in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the K-9 Unit’s fi­nances was po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. Welsh, who started the in­de­pen­dently fi­nanced K-9 Unit in 2006, is a Repub­li­can, and staunch sup­porter of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Last month, county Repub­li­can and state GOP Chair­man Val DiGior­gio, a former county con­troller him­self, as­sailed Reif’s au­dit of the K-9 Unit.

“Un­for­tu­nately, with county elec­tions ap­proach­ing in 2019, the re­cently elected Demo­crat con­troller has de­cided to bring par­ti­san pol­i­tics to Ch­ester County and is try­ing to find scan­dal where none ex­ists,” said Digior­gio in a let­ter to county Repub­li­cans. He con­tended that Reif had no au­thor­ity to au­dit the K-9 Unit’s fi­nan­cial records be­cause they did not in­volve tax­payer funds.

“I be­lieve that in­stead of be­ing crit­i­cized, Bunny de­serves our sup­port and even praise for her good work in pro­vid­ing an im­por­tant tool for lo­cal law en­force­ment, again, at no tax­payer ex­pense,” DiGior­gio said.

Reif has re­jected the claims that she is act­ing out of par­ti­san an­i­mus, and said that she was in­stead re­act­ing to mul­ti­ple com­plaints her of­fice had re­ceived over the years about “im­proper spend­ing” in­volv­ing the K-9 pro­gram. She noted that while the K-9 unit is not funded di­rectly by the county, some county re­sources, in­clud­ing the county web­site, was used to so­licit the funds.

Reif ap­proached the D.A.’s Of­fice with re­sults from her team’s au­dit on Fri­day. Prior to that, she said, she had met with the chair­woman of the county com­mis­sion­ers to in­form her of her of­fices’s in­ten­tion to ask the dis­trict at­tor­ney to open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that would in­volve the sher­iff’s of­fice, a fel­low elected of­fi­cial. Such a move is re­quired by the Third Class County Code, she said.

The com­mis­sion­ers of­fice con­firmed that a meet­ing with Reif was con­vened.

“Per the process out­lined in the state County Code, the con­troller met with com­mis­sion­ers’ Chair (woman) Michelle Kich­line, then (now former) county Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Mark Rup­sis, and county Solic­i­tor Tom White­man to pro­vide a ver­bal over­view of her au­dit,” said county Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Of­fi­cer Rebecca Brain Tues­day in a state­ment. Brain did not com­ment on the meet­ing oth­er­wise.

Last month, the con­troller an­nounced that the sher­iff’s of­fice had failed to fully com­ply with its sub­poena for fi­nan­cial records from 2009 to the present con­cern­ing the sher­iff’s K-9 Unit fund­ing. The sub­poena was is­sued af­ter Welsh de­clined to vol­un­tar­ily sub­mit the K-9 Unit’s records to an au­dit by the Con­troller’s Of­fice.

The sher­iff pro­vided the con­troller with only three years of records, from 2015, 2016, and 2017.

The K-9 unit is the largest of its kind in the south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia re­gion, but is not funded by county tax dol­lars. In­stead, Welsh has used grant money and pri­vate do­na­tions. The funds raised were meant to help de­fray the costs of the train­ing, cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, vet­eri­nary care, shel­ter and food for the dogs, who have names like Luke, Nero, Dex­ter and Murphy.

The fundrais­ing ef­forts have in­cluded golf out­ings, clas­sic car shows, and “wild game” din­ners, Welsh said. Over the years, es­ti­mates are that the fundrais­ing has brought in “hun­dreds of thou­sands” of dol­lars that might oth­er­wise have been paid for with tax­payer dol­lars, had the pro­gram been ap­proved for fund­ing by the county com­mis­sion­ers.

In his com­ment, Ho­gan said that his of­fice made a con­tri­bu­tion of $6,500 to the sher­iff’s K-9 op­er­a­tion for the train­ing of a drug dog. The con­tri­bu­tion would present his of­fice with po­ten­tial con­flict, he said.

“If a con­flict in a po­ten­tial crim­i­nal mat­ter ex­ists, we do not investigate any fur­ther be­cause we would not want to in­ter­fere with or take steps not agreed to by the agency who is ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for the in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Ho­gan said in an email to the Daily Lo­cal News. “This is the same pro­to­col that we fol­low when other agen­cies re­fer mat­ters to us for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause of a po­ten­tial con­flict for in­stance, a lo­cal po­lice de­part­ment in­ves­ti­gat­ing one of their own town­ship su­per­vi­sors or an in­ves­ti­ga­tion from a dif­fer­ent county.”

Welsh and her of­fice have noted the pop­u­lar­ity of the K-9 of­fi­cers, their ex­per­tise, and the law en­force­ment ben­e­fits the group brings to the county and else­where. In a re­cent ra­dio in­ter­view, Welsh boasted that her K-9 Unit was among “the finest in the coun­try.” The unit cur­rently has nine canine of­fi­cers, which spe­cial­ize in bomb and drug de­tec­tion, hu­man track­ing and com­fort ser­vices. It has won sev­eral awards for its work over the years.

But funds for those dogs were also raised, notes Reif, with di­rect ap­peals to sup­port­ers through the county’s web­site, www.ch­esco,org. And that, among other fac­tors, is what gives her the au­thor­ity and rea­son to au­dit the K-9 Unit’s fi­nances, she said. “This is strictly about hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars so­licited and re­ceived in the sher­iff’s of­fice, through the county web­site and flow­ing through a bank ac­count that lists its ad­dress as 201 W. Mar­ket St. with­out any over­sight,” she said last month.

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