By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Saying officials who misspend tax money must be held accountable, state Attorney General Jim Petro on Monday announced he is suing the former Fairfield County Sheriff and others connected to the sheriff's department for misspending more than $213,000.
"It's important for people who steal public funds to find there will be an effort to get money back," Petro said. "Nobody just hands money over, so we are going to aggressively pursue it."
Petro said he's confident he can collect the money from insurance on former Fairfield County Sheriff Gary DeMastry, a Republican who was convicted in 2001 on 32 public corruption charges. DeMastry was sentenced to six years in prison.
Prosecutors said he and others in the office misspent money from 1994 to 1997 on travel, dining and entertainment for items including a $600 dinner at Morton's steakhouse - and then lied about it. Among other things, trial testimony revealed DeMastry enlisted his top officers to cash checks drawn on crime-fighting office accounts and then instructed them to give most of the money to him.
So far, just $26,500 has been recovered. But 16 defendants, including an insurance company that issues bonds for county governments, were identified in the lawsuit, filed in Fairfield County Common Pleas Court. Petro said prosecutors didn't attempt to get the money back in this case because they first pursued criminal charges.
All told, he plans to go after about $2 million in misspent money in more than 100 cases in the next few months, either through lawsuits or other collection methods.
Petro, who was state auditor until he took over as attorney general in January, says he knows first-hand about most of the misspent money because his auditors uncovered it. He said many of the state audit findings were put on the back burner by his predecessor, Betty Montgomery, but his office is making them a priority.
"We may lose some of these cases, but we can't let the matter drop or fall by the wayside," Petro said. "We're going to chase down every bit of money owed to the state."
In addition, Petro said on Monday that his office has also improved collections in other areas. He said his collections department is bringing $600,000 more each week or $2.4 million a month more than Montgomery's office did.
"That's not chicken feed," Petro said. "We're making sure if the money is owed, we're going after it."
Montgomery has said her office didn't take action on some audits because it would cost more to purse than the state could recover. In addition, her spokesman Eric Hardgrove said Montgomery, who is now state auditor, is proud of her record.
"As Attorney General, Betty Montgomery collected over $1 billion owed to the state. She was the first (attorney general) in the history of the state to do that. If that type of collection activity can continue, then it's good news for the state of Ohio."
Petro's announcement on Monday comes in the wake of an investigation by The Cincinnati Enquirer last month that showed little has been done to recover $346 million that state auditors said was misspent.
An analysis of state audits since 2000 revealed that foster-care companies alone spent nearly $16 million on questionable items, including a Mercedes Benz, plastic surgery and Rolling Stones tickets but have repaid just $117,000.
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