MOUNT VERNON — The Bureau of Criminal Investigation, in conjunction with the Ohio Ethics Commission, has opened an investigation into Mount Vernon Police Chief Mike Merrilees and Sgt. Robert “Kit” Morgan regarding allegations of misconduct.
The investigation is the result of a request from the City Law Director’s Office and the Knox County Prosecutor’s Office. “BCI investigations investigate all potential violations of Ohio law and report them back to the requesting agency,” Dan Tierney, spokesman for BCI told the News.
According to Dave Glass, safety-service director for the city, Merrilees and Morgan will not be placed on administrative leave, but will continue to perform their duties with the police department while BCI and OEC conducts the investigation.
“We didn’t think it was necessary,” Glass said.
He added that a thirdparty was asked to investigate because, “We wanted to be independent. We just wanted to be totally independent of the local entities.”
Chip McConville, city law director, confirmed BCI agreed to open an investigation but declined to comment further.
While the Ohio Ethics Commission has no public information to share at this time, the purpose of the OEC is to regulate those who work in public service.
“The primary areas of the ethics audit we look at are conflicts of interest and public contracts. [We make sure] that no public official or public employee can use their public job — their public position, their public role — to gain benefit for themselves, their families, their business associates,” said Susan Willeke, spokeswoman for the OEC.
Willeke explained once allegations are made regarding possible violations of ethics laws, an initial assessment takes place by investigators that determines if there is validity to the allegation.
“If there is evidence to verify that the allegation is accurate, they go before our investigation attorney and request formally from our ethics commission, ‘We want to open this case,’ and they begin a more formal investigation.”
At the close of the OEC’s investigation, Willeke said there could be one of three conclusions offered. The first could be that the case is simply closed because no evidence was found and investigators believe there was no wrongdoing.
The case could also result in legal charges.
“The commission can also refer a case to a local prosecutor if they really feel, yes there is evidence and we feel this warrants prosecution because the ethics law is a criminal law and not a civil law,” Willeke said.
The third outcome could results in an “alternative resolution” that Willeke described as somewhat of a compromise.
“If the person was very cooperative, they completely admitted the wrong doing, we don’t think this warrants prosecution but we’re going to take these steps,” Willeke said. Depending on the particular allegations, Willeke said the person investigated could be required to pay back money they were not entitled to, they could resign their position or agree to a public reprimand, among many available options.
The OEC investigation is confidential and results are only released to the reporting agency — in this case the city law director and county prosecutor.
Violations of OEC laws can result in misdemeanor charges with punishments ranging from fines up to $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail or felony charges with prison terms and/or fines up to $5,000.
The request for an outside investigation follows a Mount Vernon News investigation into Morgan’s purchase of a vehicle from a city resident while it was in the city impound lot and an ongoing investigation into the purchase and sale of parking meters by Merrilees and Morgan in 2010.
Merrilees told the News he agreed to Morgan’s purchase of a 1994 Jeep because both parties would benefit. He also said he was told by Morgan that the purchase price was fair.
A year after Morgan’s purchase of the 1994 Jeep, the Kelly Blue Book value on the vehicle was $3,013 in fair condition. The original owner, Andrew Barber, told the News he paid $4,000 for the Jeep less than a year before it was towed to impound.
Morgan paid $650 to the city to pay off Barber’s debt for parking tickets, towing and storage fees. He also paid Barber $1,000 in cash.
“It never crossed my mind until about a month later. I was like, ‘He just got a heck of a deal off me because he knew I was in a bind,’” Barber told the News.
“Some people might think it looks wrong and I can see how it would have,” Merrilees told the News during its investigation of the purchase. “It was fair market value. That was my first and main concern because if he paid $1,000 for a vehicle and we find out it was worth $3,000, that’s fishy and obviously red lights everywhere and that would be a problem.”
If Barber did not pay the parking tickets or impound fees, the vehicle would have been forfeited to the city and sold at auction.
Morgan has since sold the vehicle for $2,700, according to Merrilees.
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