Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Epling inspires new bill

Stiffer terms for corruption

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - Just call it the "Ron Epling Law."

A Senate committee Tuesday approved a bill to create another felony crime - "abuse of public trust." If enacted, public officials who stole public money could be sent to prison for up to 20 years.

The bill, sponsored by Lakeside Park Republican Sen. Dick Roeding, was prompted by the case of Florence's former finance director, charged with stealing more than $1 million from the city.

Ronald J. Epling faces multiple charges of theft, each of which carries a sentence of one to five years. That doesn't fit the alleged crime, Florence's assistant city attorney, Larry Dillon, told the State and Local Government Committee.

"When a public servant violates a trust such as this, there's not just a single, individual victim," Dillon said. "The entire community feels victimized and outraged. This sense of outrage is pervasive throughout Florence at this time."

Epling is accused of 18 counts of theft from the city totaling $1.24 million over about two years. Investigators are still tallying up how much might be missing from Florence city coffers for the rest of his employment.

He had been finance director since 1987, and prosecutors say he used a personal account he titled "Florence Capital Improvements" to siphon large checks from the city. Epling bought houses and condos for his estranged wife and his girlfriend, buying one $650,000 home in the tony Triple Crown subdivision mostly in cash.

The proposed crime would apply to any official who intentionally takes public money or property. Those convicted could never hold public office.

Penalties would increase in proportion to amounts stolen. The offense would be a class D felony, punishable by one to five years in prison, for thefts of less than $10,000. Thefts over $100,000 would be a Class B felony, punishable by 10 to 20 years.

The legislation would not apply to Epling but could discourage other public officials from dipping into public funds, supporters said.

Although the bill won unanimous approval, some lawmakers raised concerns about a section allowing forfeiture of a convicted public official's property to help compensate for any losses.

Sen. David Karem, D-Louisville, said innocent relatives of a corrupt officeholder could be uprooted from their home. "I don't want to put mom and three kids in a welfare situation," he said.

Roeding said he was agreeable to removing that section.

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