DeWine drags Fremont probe

AG's detectives go slow looking at $36 million in misspent funds for costly reservoir
Andy Ouriel
Aug 1, 2014

ouriel@sanduskyregister.com

A high-profile case determining whether past and present Fremont officials misspent about $36 million in public funds remains at a standstill.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and his staff have made no noticeable progress toward finishing a public corruption investigation involving the construction of the Fremont Reservoir — a city project with an initial estimated cost of $9 million ballooning to at least $45 million.

The reservoir, built near the Ballville Dam, was finished in 2013, and area water customers will be paying down the $36 million in cost overruns for years, even decades, into the future. 

The non responses from DeWine and his staff continues a practice started after the Register first reported details of the costs in February 2012. 

Public officials have stymied all comments since then, refusing to provide responses to key questions. City officials turned over the matter to DeWine citing potential conflicts in investigating it locally, and the newspaper has encountered repeated roadblocks from DeWine and his prosecutors, investigators and spokespeople gaining any additional information. 

The Register sought an update this week, asking new and resending lingering, outstanding questions.

But the inquiries, again, went unanswered. Replies sent back to the Register generally contain no information of any substantial nature.

“The remaining questions relate to the open, ongoing investigation, and thus, we cannot comment on those questions at this time,” DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney wrote again in an email reply to the Register.

DeWine and his various spokespeople have maintained this same stance for almost 18 months, unable or unwilling to provide any information about the scope and intention of his investigation.

In May, DeWine asked the Ohio Ethics Commission to review the case file. The request came after an inquiry from the Register. The Ohio Ethics Commission also neglected to provide a status update on the case.

DeWIne's track record in Sandusky County — with three past county grand jury investigations in the last three years reviewing alleged wrongdoing by public officials, in which all failed to return any indictments — does not suggest his current investigation will have any substantial impact addressing the problems plaguing Sandusky County officials and burdening local taxpayers.

In the Fremont Reservoir case, area water customers continue receiving year-over-year rate increases. Today, a one-person household spends about $47 per month for water and sewer services. A four-person household now plunks down $117 for these services.

And those rates should keep skyrocketing to offset this reservoir project.

"The citizens are going to have to pay large water rates for the next 20 to 30 years because of all the cost overruns and the reservoir being placed in the wrong area in the first place," said Joe Michles, a watchdog-turned-Fremont city councilman who has long questioned the city's spending practices.

Among the reservoir-related questions DeWine has dodged, and others have avoided, include:

• Is the office investigating potential criminal violations? And if so, what are those violations? Who is being investigated into possible wrongdoing?

• Will any criminal or administrative charges against any past or present public officials be considered as a result of the investigation?

• Digital files on Fremont computers were deleted. So what information was on those computers? And have investigators determined how this information was removed?

• When will the investigation ramp up?

• The problems with reservoir construction have been a public issue for several years. The AG's Office was first contacted in January 2013 and asked by the city law director to intervene. So what is causing the apparent delays in the investigation?

"Public records have been destroyed, and it seems the administration does not want to do anything about it," Michles said. "I don't understand why it's taking so long. The citizens have a right to these records and deserve to know. Why should it be such a secret?"

Making sense of the dollars and cents

• $45 million: Cost to date, including construction and legal costs, associated with constructing the Fremont Reservoir.

• $9 million: Original project cost estimate. The final cost is more than five times what officials originally projected.

Comments

Babo

The Auditor of State also has jurisdiction to conduct investigations into expenditure of public funds. His office is much more qualified to do so as he has forensic accountants on his staff as well as attorneys. His office can and has served as special prosecutor in financial crimes cases.

Random Thoughts

Is the AG's investigation as broad as stated in this article? If I recall correctly, the City of Fremont only asked the AG's Office to look into why some city computers were erased or destroyed, and what may have been on those computers. I believe some agency should look into the cost overruns by the City of Fremont in building the reservoir, but unless I'm wrong, I don't think the AG's Office has been tasked with doing that, at least not yet.