Tuesday, September 14, 1999

Former police chief gets probation


Manchester officer misused federal gifts

BY BEN L. KAUFMAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A sympathetic judge put former Police Chief John E. Widdig on probation for two years Monday after he pleaded guilty to mishandling federal gifts to Manchester, Ohio.

        One charge was embezzlement, but U.S. District Judge Herman J. Weber said Mr. Widdig “used the money for the good of the community ... and I respect that.”

        None of it went to Mr. Widdig.

        The money was $5,750 from Mr. Widdig's legal 1994 sale of a surplus military truck given to the village the year before.

        Had Mr. Widdig deposited the money in a village account rather than that of the private Manchester Police Benevolent Association, there would have been no crime, Judge Weber said.

        Similarly, the judge said Mr. Widdig may have been “enticed” by more experienced officials into lying about police salaries in the Adams County village to inflate grant requests.

        The village got $68,356 too much. Those lies were the second crime to which Mr. Widdig pleaded guilty.

        The obviously relieved defendant — who went into court facing up to 12 months in prison — and attorney Robert E. Cesner left court smiling but refusing any comment about village affairs.

        Mr. Widdig became eligible for probation because Prosecutor Ralph Kohnen said his “substantial assistance” to Justice and Defense department investigators warranted a reduced sentence.

        Mr. Widdig, now 31, was in his early 20s when he was named police chief. Law en forcement was his chosen career — as had been his father's in Pike County — but he had no administrative training.

        Arthur Gehrig, of Spriggs Township downriver from Manchester, an unofficial adviser who shared access to the benevolent association account, said members — most of them village auxiliary police officers — bought radios, lights and other equipment with the money.

        Checks were written to various individuals and Manchester businesses. None went to the chief, but personal gain wasn't necessary to prove the criminal charge.

        Judge Weber said the government took Mr. Widdig's retirement as restitution for the truck.

        Other surplus military equipment was sold to fatten the benevolent fund, the government said, but the fate of still more donated gear remains uncertain.

        The judge said Manchester should repay the whole $68,356 to the small-town police program, but he ordered Mr. Widdig to repay the first $2,500. If the village makes good on its obligation, Mr. Widdig is to get his money back, Judge Weber said.

        Mr. Widdig, now of Pike ton, Ohio, made $19,158 as Manchester police chief.

        He resigned as chief in April 1997, but returned a month later at the urging of Mayor Randy Yates. Mr. Widdig quit again after being disabled by an auto accident.

        In March 1999, financial problems forced Manchester to eliminate its police force and rely on Adams County deputies.

        It was unclear Monday whether anyone else would be charged in connection with the village's handling of surplus military equipment or Justice Department grants.

       



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