Saturday, February 15, 2003

'Epling Law'

Abuse of public trust

A nearly irresistible Kentucky bill should give pause to any public officials tempted to rip off taxpayer dollars. Tuesday, the Senate's State and Local Government Committee approved a bill to make "abuse of public trust" a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.Great idea.

It's already being called the "Ron Epling Law," after Florence's former finance director who is charged with stealing more than $1 million from the city.

Sen. Dick Roeding, R-Lakeside Park, sponsored the bill. If passed, it could not apply retroactively to Epling. But he faces plenty of jail time. He is accused of 18 counts of theft totaling $1.24 million over about two years, and each of those counts carries a sentence of one to five years. Florence Assistant City Attorney Larry Dillon told the Senate committee that such charges don't fit Epling's alleged crimes.

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

The proposed felony for abuse of public trust would apply to any official who intentionally takes public money or property. If convicted, such officials could never hold public office again. The bill creates two tiers, with penalties rising in proportion to the amounts stolen. A class D felony for thefts under $10,000 would be punishable by one to five years in prison. A class B felony for thefts over $100,000 would be punishable by 10 to 20 years.

Sen. David Karem, D-Louisville, objected to one provision in the bill that would allow the authorities to confiscate a corrupt official's property to help compensate for any government losses. Karem worried innocent relatives of a corrupt official could lose their home, car or other property. Roeding said he was agreeable to killing the forfeiture clause.

Epling became Florence finance director in 1987. He bought houses and condos for his estranged wife and girlfriend. He paid for one $650,000 home mostly in cash. Kentucky senators ought to see if they can salvage some of the forfeiture clause, while still protecting the innocent.

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