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Bill would allow Ohio counties to hire inspectors general to seek out fraud

Mahoning County officials said they don’t see a need for a new, locally funded office to provide a service they feel would be redundant.
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The Capitol Building for the state of Ohio. (Getty Images)

COLUMBUS — Ohio lawmakers are considering proposed legislation that would create a framework for the appointments of inspectors general for county governments.

Local officials, however, said they don’t see the need for a new, locally funded office to provide a service they feel would be redundant.

Rep. Dave Greenspan, R-Westlake, who is sponsoring the bill, testified in favor of his legislation in front of the House State and Local Government Committee.

The legislation would provide a permissive basis for counties to create a position that would investigate fraud, waste and corruption on the county level, similar to the state inspector general on the state level, Greenspan said. The office would take ethics complaints, investigation suspected wrongdoings within county government, and file reports upon completion.

The inspector general would have jurisdiction to investigate all county offices and employees and all departments and agencies. The office could also investigate people and entities that do business with the counties or take any public money from any public office, whether it be the county, town, state or federal government.

Under state statute, that responsibility currently falls to county prosecutors’ offices. And Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains told Mahoning Matters he feels the investigative field is already full.

“I don’t know if there’s any need for Mahoning County to have an inspector general,” he said Monday. “It’s duplicative. We’ve got the [Ohio] Ethics Commission, we’ve got the sheriff’s department, we’ve got [the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation].”

The county would need a majority vote of its commissioners to request an inspector general from the state. If the county makes the request, then the state inspector general would interview potential candidates for the position. The candidate would then have to be approved by a newly formed State Commission for County Inspector General Services, which would consist of the attorney general, the state auditor, the secretary of state, the state treasurer and the lieutenant governor. The candidate would then need a majority approval from the county commissioners to receive the position.

Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti agreed with Gains that a local inspector general would be redundant.

Audrey Tillis, commissioners’ executive director, added Mahoning County has policed itself “very well” in recent years.

“I think our county does a pretty good job of investigating things when they come up,” she said. “If there’s a conflict, then they’re going up to the next level at the state or a sister county to assist with those issues.”

Initial funding would be decided by a majority vote by the county commissioners.

To maintain independence and ensure integrity, the commissioners would be required to approve any reasonable funding requested by the office, and the commissioners would not be allowed to lower its funding. The inspector general would also be independent in decisions about hiring, firing and oversight.

Having an independent inspector general would “benefit taxpayers and improve our communities,” Greenspan said.

An inspector general could only be removed if someone filed a complaint and the county held a hearing about that complaint.

The legislation would also give counties the option to contract with the state attorney general’s office to do one-off investigations if they did not feel like they needed an inspector general on the county level.

“I would be opposed to it. I think it’s a waste of money,” Gains said.

He added criminal claims that are ultimately unfounded have the potential to “destroy a political career” if somehow made public through the proposed inspector general’s office.

He said the Ohio Ethics Commission discreetly reviews complaints against officials or departments, then determines whether to launch an investigation.

“Then once they make a determination that there’s no need to investigate, they close the matter and everything’s confidential,” Gains said. “No one even knows the matter went to Columbus. There’s no political ramifications.”

-- Mahoning Matters reporter Justin Dennis contributed to this report.