Sheriff Asks County Commissioners For Attorney Funds In Records Dispute

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Athens County Sheriff Patrick Kelly has asked the county commissioners for funding to hire an outside attorney in the dispute over missing county records.

However, it appears it might not happen.

Commission President Lenny Eliason said getting permission to expend funds for an outside attorney requires a joint application from the commissioners and county prosecutor to Athens County Common Pleas Court. The dispute, though, centers around Blackburn's stated belief that Kelly disposed prosecutor's office written records in a landfill, which Kelly denies. Most of the records appear to have been microfilmed.

Kelly notes in his letter requesting the funding that it was Blackburn who asked the Ohio Attorney General's Office to investigate the matter.

Although the sheriff's request will be brought up at Tuesday's commissioners meeting, Eliason said, he does not expect the request will get final approval because of the requirement for a joint request to the court.

"He (Blackburn) just said he would not approve it," Eliason said. "I had a phone conversation with him."

Kelly said he thinks Blackburn should go along with the request.

"I can't think of any reason why the county prosecutor would not approve of this in this situation," Kelly said. "It would be the right thing to do."

When The Messenger contacted Blackburn for comment Friday, he said he is turning his focus to prosecution of the criminal cases his office handles, and referred questions about the records dispute to one of his assistant prosecutors, Rob Driscoll.

Driscoll said Ohio law says that the application must be made to both the commissioners and the county prosecutor, but at this point the prosecutor's office has no request from Kelly. Ohio law says an attorney can be hired to assist in "any matter of public business coming before (the officeholder) … or defense of any action or proceeding." Driscoll said that doesn't appear to be the situation.

In the letter, Kelly wrote that he wanted legal counsel and advice regarding "the issue of alleged missing records from the Athens County Prosecutor's Office and other pressing matters."

Kelly wrote that he does not believe Blackburn can represent the sheriff's office "without prejudice" because the prosecutor's office will be "a partner in the attorney general's investigation."

Driscoll said there is no partnership with the prosecutor's office, and the Attorney General's Office does its investigations independently.

Kelly also wrote that he does not believe Blackburn can represent his office without prejudice "since his (Blackburn's) office has lost accountability of their records and will certainly be of interest to the investigators."

"This office has not lost accountability of its records," Driscoll countered. He said the office knows where its records are and "some of them are in the landfill because of another party's actions."

Asked about his reasons for wanting legal counsel and about Driscoll's reaction, Kelly said he would let his letter speak for itself.

"Why is Rob Driscoll speaking for the prosecutor?" Kelly queried.

Asked by The Messenger if he thinks Kelly should get funding to hire an attorney, Eliason replied, "I think it's a difficult situation when you have to get advice from someone you're having a dispute with."

Eliason said he believes state law should be changed to allow, in such situations, for a direct application to be made to the court.

Although Kelly has denied disposing of the prosecutor's records, the sheriff has said he's disposed of some of his own records and moved some to the county's North Lancaster Street building. He said it was done to free-up space at the sheriff's downtown location and because county records are being consolidated at the North Lancaster site. Kelly has also said the paper records he disposed of had all been microfilmed.

Eliason, who is chairman of the Athens County Records Commission, and County Auditor Jill Thomson, who is secretary of that commission, have said Kelly failed to file required paperwork before destroying records.

Under Ohio law, there can be a civil penalty for failing to follow proper procedure in the disposal of records. The law says that "any person who is aggrieved" can file an action in common pleas court to seek forfeiture of $1,000 for each violation, not to exceed $10,000.