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Ogle sheriff's tow fund set up 'fairly loosely'

Board chairman says changes will be made; more than $200,000 deposited from various sources since 2011

Published: Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST
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Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn
Caption
Ogle County Board Chairman Kim Gouker

OREGON – Ogle County officials are looking to add specific rules on how the sheriff can use a controversial fund that he can spend at his discretion.

On Tuesday, the Ogle County Board’s Executive Committee is expected discuss making changes to an ordinance that has allowed the sheriff to collect more than $200,000 for use at his discretion.

In October 2011, the Ogle County Board approved the ordinance that created the Sheriff’s Department’s administrative tow fund.

“We set it up fairly loosely, and we shouldn’t have,” current County Board Chairman Kim Gouker said.

The Executive Committee will have the ordinance on the agenda for its Tuesday meeting, said Gouker, who added that it was Sheriff Michael Harn’s idea to make changes.

“The sheriff decided that there’s just so much controversy about it that we’re going to change it,” Gouker said. “That’s why we’re doing it now.”

In December, Sauk Valley Media reported that Harn had used the tow fund, which exists outside the county’s budget, to pay for repairs to department vehicles, a tent at the Ogle County Fair, a $4,000 management fee for the department’s Facebook page, and flowers for secretary’s day, among other expenses.

Tow fund details

On Dec. 16, the day the story about tow fund expenditures was published, Sauk Valley Media sent the Sheriff’s Department a Freedom of Information Act request for all information related to revenue going into the tow fund, along with two other requests.

In a letter dated Dec. 23, Harn extended the deadline by 5 business days, which would take it to Dec. 31.

On Jan. 14, Harn said the documents could possibly be ready that week, adding that the delay was due to his department spending extra time to redact all sensitive information, like account numbers and bank routing numbers.

The 451 pages of documents weren’t available until Jan. 21, which was 22 working days after the request was sent.

According to bank statements obtained by Sauk Valley Media, between October 2011 and November 2013, the Sheriff’s Department collected $210,400 for its administrative tow fund and withdrew $158,132.

A review of the 401 pages of tow fee receipts found that only $140,000 of the total money had been collected from vehicle towing.

Asked about the other income, Harn said, in an email, that it came from “reimbursements from the state of Illinois, restitution, Exelon donation for squad car and equipment, fuel charges from other departments, Exelon Refund for Nuke drill [and] front office fees for reports.”

No documents relating to those other deposits were provided in response to this newspaper’s Dec. 16 request for “All information related to revenue into from the sheriff’s administrative tow fund since October 1, 2011, including bank statements or other documents.”

On Friday, Sauk Valley Media submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for “all information related to revenue into from the sheriff’s administrative tow fund not coming from administrative tow fees” and for a copy of the fund’s ledger or log book.

Those other sources of revenue account for $70,050, or a third of the total money deposited into the account during the first 2 years.

“It’s obvious that the board left this thing too open,” Gouker said. “It’s not that the sheriff did anything wrong.”

In an interview on Thursday, Gouker said he became aware of the other deposits during the past year, but he wasn’t sure when – or why – they were added to the tow fund. Without looking at the specific deposits on the ledger for the tow fund, Gouker said he wasn’t sure where those funds had previously been deposited.

“I’ve talked to the sheriff about it,” Gouker said. “And we’re going to change it. We’re going to change it. There was an intent for that fund.”

Harn didn’t respond to a request for comment about where the deposits had previously been made and for specifics about the restitution money and state reimbursements.

Changes coming?

According to the ordinance, the fund was set up to “offset the the costs associated with the towing, impounding or seizing of motor vehicles during the the commission of criminal, traffic or related offenses.”

The ordinance allows for funds collected “to be used at the discretion of the sheriff” for “law enforcement related activities including the purchase or maintaining of police vehicles, equipment or training.”

The tow fund also has been used to buy advertising for the Sheriff’s Department, including January advertisements that promoted the department’s return of unspent money to the county budget’s general fund. Harn insisted the ads were not political even though they were published within 2 months of the March 18 primary election, where he will face two Republican challengers.

While the changes to the tow fund will come from discussions among Harn, Gouker and members of the Executive Committee, Gouker said he didn’t think buying advertisements should be allowed and was something he would “strike from any new language.”

Any action taken during the Executive Committee meeting will have to be reviewed and approved by the full County Board before it can take effect.

Forensic audit

During the Ogle County Board meeting on Jan. 21, board member Richard Petrizzo called for a forensic audit of all spending by the sheriff’s department, according to a report by Ogle County News.

A forensic audit is more extensive and investigative than the county budget’s annual audit.

Although it is not part of the budget, the tow fund has been audited by the county’s auditors in the past, Gouker said.

Because forensic audits are usually done in a case where criminal or fraudulent activity is suspected, Gouker said this week he didn’t support such at audit of the tow fund or Sheriff’s Department spending at this time.

“A forensic [audit] is designed to be something that’s more direct, not broad and general,” Gouker said.

No other board members commented on Petrizzo’s motion, according to Ogle County News, and the board took no action because the item wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda.

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