Hogan: State, feds should investigate K-9 case
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.