Proposed Legislation Addresses Limitations in Laws Regulating Theft in Office Charges

By Dave Yost, Ohio Auditor of State

Thursday, March 1, 2018

As a former county prosecutor, it’s no surprise that I believe corrupt public servants deserve more than a slap on the wrist for swindling tax dollars from their communities. 

Since taking office in 2011, the hard work of auditors and investigators in my office has helped convict 146 former public officials and employees. By the time you read this, that number will probably be even higher. 

Of all these cases, the most common charge brought against suspected wrongdoers is theft in office. According to the law, a theft in office charge applies when a public official – any public employee – uses his or her office to commit one of the various crimes categorized as theft: tampering with records, forgery, telecommunications fraud and passing bad checks, among others. 

While many of those convicted of theft in office were handed appropriate punishments for their crimes, others got off lightly because of limitations in the laws regulating the charge.  

As the law currently stands, a third-degree felony is the maximum offense level for a theft in office charge. This means an official convicted of stealing any amount over $150,000 – even millions – faces the same penalties as someone who stole $7,500, between nine months and three years in prison. I’m sure that makes as little sense to you as it does to me.

To ensure the penalty fits the crime, my office’s Legislative Affairs Division is pursuing changes to the law that would establish first and second-degree felony offense levels for theft in office charges, mirroring the existing statute for the separate charge of theft.

Under the proposal, a theft of between $150,000 and $750,000 would fall into a second-degree felony threshold punishable by two to eight years in prison. Any theft of more than $750,000 would merit a first-degree felony holding a sentence of three to 11 years in prison. 

A second component of the proposal addresses the costs local governments pay for forensic audits – examinations that measure the extent of a theft. For the most part, current statute prevents judges from ordering offenders to reimburse entities for the audit costs, which sometimes outweigh the losses from the theft itself. 

For example, the Village of Barnesville in Belmont County paid $14,616 to find $16,156 in fraudulent charges. In Pike County, it cost the clerk of courts office $15,498 to discover a $7,380 theft.

There is no sense in worsening the financial burden for governments already rattled by theft. To remedy this flaw, my office is recommending the addition of language to the theft in office statute that would permit a court to include the costs of an audit in a restitution order when the victim is a public entity. 

Stay tuned for updates on the Auditor of State’s website, as my legislative team plans to introduce the proposal as a bill in the near future. 

As always, I encourage all local governments to routinely reassess their internal controls over finances and address any weaknesses that come to light. And if you ever suspect unlawful activity at your entity, don’t wait to report it to my office’s Public Integrity Assurance Team. You can do so anonymously. 

Contact the Auditor’s Public Integrity Assurance Team by phone at 1-866-372-8364 or email fraudohio@ohioauditor.gov.

This article was first published in the Ohio Township Magazine.