ABC 6 Investigates: Questionable spending by Ohio prosecutors and sheriffs

Investigator Brooks Jarosz confronts Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn to ask him about how tax money is being spent. (WSYX/WTTE)

Outside bank accounts controlled by Ohio county prosecutors and sheriffs aimed at fighting crime, continuing education and investigations are also being used to pay for expensive dinners, high-end hotels, and extended trips.

ABC 6 On Your Side Investigators found there is little oversight and loose rules allowing prosecutors and sheriffs to draft their own policies and spend taxpayer dollars as they choose.

One fund, called the Furtherance of Justice, gives Ohio county prosecutors and sheriffs freedom to spend tax money to pursue criminals. However, with vague guidelines, policies can be tailored to fit that official’s spending habits.

ABC 6 On Your Side reviewed thousands of records from several Ohio counties over several years. In Fairfield County, the fund was used for flowers, coffee and office supplies. In Franklin County it was desks for legal interns and thousands of dollars in watches from a jewelry story. In Athens County, it was the training trips that were questionable.

“I want to see more accountability for our elected officials,” Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson said. “I want transparency in government. I want elected officials to be held to a higher standard.”

During a conference in Orlando, records show Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn took himself out for a $90 steak dinner. Receipts also show one night he went to Disney and spent about $75 for food on himself.

ABC 6 On Your Side wanted to interview the prosecutor but were turned down after not providing questions in advance. That’s when Investigator Brooks Jarosz decided to track him down after a day on the golf course.

“You’re taking yourself out to a restaurant for $90 and taxpayers might be upset about that,” Jarosz explained.

“We’re doing great work down here and I’m awfully proud of my office because we’re taking care of a major problem with oxycodone and heroin,” Blackburn replied.

Prosecutor Blackburn explained the trips helped make connections to stop the flow of drugs and take down a crooked cop.

In a trip to San Diego, it was more than $1,000 for Blackburn’s registration for a career course, however, Ohio Supreme Court records show he never turned in any continuing education credits for completing the course.

Other conferences have receipts showing dinners with his staff to high end steak houses and restaurants. One trip to Columbus shows an employee of Blackburn’s eating at Longhorn for $26 while the other five members of the group went to Mitchell’s Ocean Club for nearly $380.

“It’s part of the travel plan, it’s how we meet people,” Blackburn said. “We get a lot done. Very proud of my office and we get a lot accomplished.”

Still, time and time again ABC 6 On Your Side finds him traveling to conferences in Columbus and Cleveland a day early and leaving a day after. In September, he was caught on camera along at Morton’s Steakhouse eating a steak alone the night before a conference. Then, he took an Uber ride back to the hotel just like receipts show he’s done in years past.

“It’s just self-serving and I don’t think we’re elected to serve ourselves,” Thompson said. “We’re elected to serve the people.”

The county auditor does not oversee these outside bank accounts and is only given an annual report with limited detail.

State audits of these accounts happen every three years. ABC 6 pushed to discuss these funds with Auditor of State Dave Yost to see who’s holding sheriffs and prosecutors accountable. In a statement the auditor said, “We cannot comment on something we have not seen, but it is normal practice for us to review issues that are raised by the public or media.”

County auditor Thompson wants to see some internal controls. Despite a failed bill being introduced at the Ohio legislature, no regulation has happened.

ABC 6 On Your Side is sharing what was uncovered in several counties with Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost.

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