Group seeking state investigation, removal of Horn, Sharpe
By JUDITH O. ETZEL

3/3/04

Special Thanks to The Derrick for Allowing this story to be posted

COMPLAINT ALLEGES CONSPIRACY TO HIDE KNOWLEDGE OF MISSING VENANGO COUNTY FUNDS.

A coalition of disgruntled Venango County residents, outraged at what they insist are political shenanigans and public trust violations, have asked several state government agencies to investigate the county's $1.5 million swindle and the Nov. 4 general election.

"We have formally complained to the state attorney general's office, the state auditor general's office, the state election bureau and the state ethics board about both the missing funds and the election," said Ray Beichner, an Oil City businessman and a spokesman for the group. "And we want those agencies to investigate."

In addition to those formal requests for an investigation, the coalition also intends to begin circulating petitions "demanding that Deb Sharpe (county treasurer) and Larry Horn (county commissioner) resign immediately," said Beichner.

Joining Beichner in filing the complaints are Rod Bedow of Cherrytree Township, David Martin of Oil City, Glenn Weaver of Franklin, Pam Clerici of Franklin, Clint Hepler of Cranberry Township, Craig Adams of Cranberry Township and Vicki Garfield of Cherrytree Township.

Several of the members are in the timber industry and were branded as "timber barons" by former commissioners Deb Lutz and Bob Murray. They have also been harsh critics of the county's reassessment project.

Beichner, Bedow and Martin spent Tuesday in Harrisburg lobbying for the investigation. Beichner said each office visited was "very receptive and very interested" in the topics raised in the coalition's complaint.

Today, the group will formally present its complaint to county commissioners Sue Smith, Gary Hutchison and Horn. Beichner said he will meet earlier in the day with District Attorney Marie Veon to ask her to formally refer the issue to the state attorney general's office.

"That was the advice the attorney general's staff gave us, to have it referred from our DA. We asked her earlier to formally investigate this but she told us she could not since the (former) commissioners has discussed the missing funds with her. So she recused herself. But she has told us she would refer it to Harrisburg," said Beichner.

At the heart of the group's complaint is its assertion that Lutz, Murray, Horn and Sharpe "failed to exercise due diligence" in their duties and that caused the loss of $1.5 million in county funds and resulted in misleading and inaccurate county budget hearings.

The financial loss was the result of an alleged swindle by the Ohio-based RCM investment firm that failed to hand over two certificates of deposit, valued at $1.5 million, to the county treasurer's office last fall. County officials did not divulge the loss until Dec. 4, some six weeks after it was discovered.

The chief issues in the complaint are:

* The "dereliction and malfeasance of duty to adequately protect and safeguard public funds."

* The "conspiracy of silence" to withhold that information from the public during hearings held prior to adopting the 2004 county budget.

* "Fraudulent and deceitful" public hearings on the budget, particularly by allowing the public to think $1 million was in a reserve account "even though it was known by the former commissioners" to be missing.

* A "fraudulent" 2004 county budget that misled the public into "believing that county finances were secure and in order when in fact county finances were in a shambles and the county was in severe financial crisis" that ultimately resulted in a 20 percent property tax hike.

ELECTION BOARD FAULTED

The coalition also takes aim at the county election board, comprised of Lutz, Murray and chief clerk Denise Jones. The trio, insists the complaint, failed to uphold the Election Code providing for fair and impartial elections.

The charges include:

* A "conspiracy of silence" to withhold the swindle information from both the voters and two candidates, Bedow and Clerici, prior to the election. Bedow was a write-in candidate for commissioner and Clerici was seeking the treasurer's job.

The election board knew, insists the group, that "such information would be of critical interest and importance to the voters prior to the general election in assessing the records and qualifications of the incumbent candidates, Larry Horn and Deb Sharpe."

* "Tainted election results" caused by depriving Bedow and Clerici to equal access to that information even as Horn and Sharpe were immediately notified.

*Disenfranchisement of all Venango County voters by "denying them equal access to the embezzlement information and to information of the roles of the incumbents (Horn and Sharpe) in events surrounding" the missing money.

* "Unfair favoritism" given to Horn and Sharpe by "secretly revealing" the swindle to them before the election while withholding the same details from other candidates and the voters. That, insists the coalition, "taint(ed) the election results" and made them null and void.

LOCAL 'STONEWALL'

In delivering their complaint to the state agencies Tuesday, the group had "very good feedback" from those officials, said Beichner.

"They all told us they'd be getting back to us soon. All of them were very interested," he said.

Beichner said the eight-member group chose to lodge their complaint on the state level because of frustrations in trying to learn details about the missing money, the reticence of county officials to divulge the information, and the impact that all had on the election in November.

"We are pretty sure there has been an attempt to stonewall and keep the public in the dark as to what is going on because we believe a lot of information released to the public is absolutely not true," said Beichner.

An example, he offered, is an argument by Murray and others that the FBI has directed that county officials and others not discuss the swindle.

"We've been trying to compile information but everything has been a dead end street. Every time we ask, we are told the FBI put a lid on it. That statement by the commissioners is absolutely not true. They may have a self-imposed silence but it is not under the direction of the FBI. The FBI, other than by a court order, cannot issue a silence on information," Beichner said.

Despite repeated attempts to learn when or even if the FBI imposed a "lid of silence," Beichner and his group have not yet been given any documentation as to what the agency decreed locally.

SEEK OUSTERS

Beichner said the coalition will begin to circulate petitions within a few days calling for the ouster of Horn and Sharpe from county office. There are other efforts that will soon get under way, too, said Beichner.

"We are, absolutely, not aiming at (current commissioners) Sue Smith and Gary Hutchison. I don't think they did anything to cause this to be covered up. Horn, Murray and Lutz are in our focus. And Denise Jones, too, was on the election board. We believe they withheld information from the public," he said.

INVESTIGATION NEEDED

Finally, the group said an investigation should be launched to resolve the following issues:

* Remove the "cloud of distrust and suspicion" in the county

*Hold accountable those elected officials "who have violated the public trust"

* Restore "faith and credibility" to the election process and financial procedures used in Venango County.

"Both have been seriously compromised by the failure of our elected officials to conduct elections and public business ethically, transparently and in accordance with the spirit and letter of the legal codes governing Venango County," said the group.