Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Feds leave prosecution of Epling to state

Florence may sue for lost money

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Federal authorities have declined to prosecute Ronald Joseph Epling for embezzling millions of dollars from Florence city coffers.

"We are disappointed at the least," said Florence Mayor Diane Whalen. "We will do everything we can to account for every dollar taken. We want to do what is right for the city of Florence and its taxpayers."

The decision doesn't mean the end of legal troubles for Epling, the former Florence finance director now serving 16 years in prison for stealing $2.8 million.

Whalen said the city was preparing to file civil suits against Epling before the statue of limitations expires in December.

And Boone County Commonwealth's Attorney Linda Tally Smith said she would bring additional theft charges.

"I believe it is appropriate to bring the remainder of the state charges," Smith said. "Each person should be accountable for every action they have conducted."

A state court sentenced Epling, 51, to 16 years after he pleaded guilty to 35 counts of theft, totaling $2.8 million, since 1995. But Smith says the true figure stolen is closer to $4.9 million over the nearly 15 years Epling was employed by Florence.

In some years, Epling was embezzling the equivalent of 2 percent to 5 percent of the city's annual operating budget, Smith has said.

Despite the decision not to prosecute Epling in federal court, state officials said they hope that the civil division of the U.S. Attorney's Office will continue to assist Florence in recovering the money.

The Florence mayor said federal authorities have seized $440,000 from Epling but that the money hadn't been turned over. She said the only money the city has received was $51,000 from a bonding company.

It is unclear where the stolen money went. Prosecutors say the stolen tax dollars were used to pay for a double life that included a mistress and gambling junkets.

Smith said her office doesn't have the resources to investigate and recover the missing money.

She said she had argued that complex restitution issues, the outstanding charges and the length of time of the offenses made Epling's case worthy of federal prosecution.

Federal officials were not available on Tuesday for comment, but Smith said she had talked to a federal prosecutor.

"I received a call (Monday) from the U.S. Attorney's Office advising they had received a letter back from the Department of Justice declining involvement in this case," Smith said. "While I don't want to put words in their mouth, essentially it was along the lines that state authorities had greater interest in the prosecution of this matter than the federal authorities had."

Even if Epling is convicted of additional state charges of felony theft, he will be facing four additional years in prison.

Complicated state sentencing guidelines dictate that no matter how many counts of felony theft Epling is convicted of in state court, he can be sentenced to a maximum 20 years in state prison.

The same guidelines also make Epling eligible for parole after serving 20 percent of his state sentence.

Epling is serving his 16-year state sentence, in which he will be eligible for parole in three years, at the minimum-security Blackburn Correctional Institute in Lexington.

A restitution hearing in the Epling case is scheduled for July 22 in Boone Circuit Court.


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