Nepotism charges continue against property assessor

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By Janell Oliver

Charges of nepotism filed two and a half years ago against 11 elected property valuation administrators across the state, including Oldham County PVA Ron Winters, will finally be heard by the executive branch ethics commission after a ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Like several other PVAs throughout the state, Winters employs a family member in his office.

Winters is elected by Oldham County voters to assess the value of all property for the purpose of calculating property taxes, which are figured for every $100 of property. 

In June 2010, the Kentucky Court of Appeals reinstated ethics charges that a Franklin County judge had previously thrown out.

Judge Phillip Shepherd had ruled that the ethics commission did not have jurisdiction over PVAs because they are considered local officials, not state officials.

Although the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, designated PVAs as state employees and ordered the ruling remanded over a year ago, counsel for the PVAs slowed down the legal process twofold – first by asking the Court of Appeals to reconsider and, when the court issued a brief four months later standing by its previous ruling, bringing it before the Supreme Court with a motion for discretionary review.

Now that the motion has been denied and the issue of jurisdiction is no longer in dispute, the ethics commission will hold separate hearings for each of the PVAs and decide if any violations were committed and if any penalties should be enforced.

Because of the lengthy appeal process, some PVAs have left office since the charges were brought in 2009.

 If found guilty, penalties for each violation can range up to $5,000.

“If the Ethics Commission finds us guilty, we will take it back to Franklin Circuit Court and start the appeal process all over again,” Winters said.  “But we feel pretty good that the Attorney General’s office will give us a favorable ruling and we hope that the Ethics Commission will take that into account."

Winters' chief deputy is his wife, Barbara, but he said he doesn't feel he's done anything wrong or out of the ordinary for the position he holds. 

“Since the beginning of time, PVAs have hired family members. But three years ago, the ethics commission said it was wrong and picked on 11 of us. But all hirings and promotions in my office have in fact been approved by the department of revenue,” Winters said.

But employees aren’t asked if the new hire is a relative.

Although Winters feels confident about the Attorney General’s opinion of PVAs, the Attorney General’s office has found him in violation of rules in the recent past.

In fact, three state agencies are monitoring Winters and the operations of the Oldham County PVA office.

During the past year, Winters has been reprimanded by the Kentucky Registry for Election Finance, State Auditor Crit Luallen and the state Attorney General – all for actions unrelated to the nepotism allegations.

Most recently, state auditor Crit Luallen found Winters used a state vehicle for out-of-state vacation travel between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010.

According to the audit published in April, Luallen wrote, “During the review, we noted the following:

•Invoices for cleaning services had been created by the PVA.

•Invoices for the Oldham Chamber of Commerce had been created by the PVA.

•The use of ‘rewards’ earned from purchasing office supplies from an online store was not for official business.  

•The PVA redeemed the rewards for some items that were not used for official business of the PVA office.

•There were no original receipts provided to support Chevron credit card purchases.

•The PVA did not prepare 1099s for vendors or contractors that are not incorporated to which $600 or more was paid.”

“We also found the following related to the PVA’s use of the official vehicle:

•The PVA used an official vehicle for out-of-state travel without a business purpose.

•Purchases for gasoline out-of-state charged to the credit card were not for official business. ”

Luallen recommends that Winters and his staff keep better records and that Winters reimburse the office $61.71 spent on gasoline purchased out-of-state while not on official business.

In his response, Winters said rewards purchases from the office supply store are used to purchase additional supplies. Reward items that his office can’t use are donated to charity, he wrote.

Winters said he was told the PVA is allowed to drive a state vehicle and purchase gas on a state credit card for personal reasons if the proper guidelines are followed for claiming the use as a fringe benefit for income tax purposes.

Luallen responded in writing that Winters had received conflicting information.

Citing an excerpt from state law regarding take-home cars – “vehicles shall be used for official purposes only and for no other purposes” – and reiterated that the PVA should not use official vehicles for out-of-state travel unless for business purposes and that the PVA should reimburse the office for fuel charged to the office credit card during the personal out-of-state trip.

The Kentucky Registry of Election Finance found Winters in violation of election reporting laws.

The violations are in regards to inaccurately reporting expenditures for advertising used in his 2010 campaigns for re-election as well as failing to file duplicate copies of his election finance statement in the county clerk’s office.

Winters’ actions as PVA have also been closely monitored by his opponent in the 2010 election cycle, La Grange resident J. Albert Harrison.

After Harrison’s requests for records from the PVA office were denied or met with an incomplete answer, he sought an Attorney General’s opinion.

Winters defeated Harrison in the May 2010 Republican primary, and again in the November general election when Harrison filed as a write-in candidate.

In October, a decision from the Attorney General concluded that Winters the Open Records Act in failing to provide timely access to all of the documents requested.

The letter also acknowledges Winters’ violation of “failing to post rules and regulations adopted… in a ‘prominent location accessible to the public.”

Winters had 30 days to appeal the Attorney General’s decision but did not take action. 
Harrison filed a complaint against Winters in Oldham circuit court for failure to comply with the Open Records Act.

 Harrison said he filed the complaint because there was no effort made on the part of the PVA’s office to comply with the Attorney General’s decision.

Winters’ attorney has since filed a motion to dismiss, although Judge Karen Conrad has not issued a decision.

E-mail us about this story at: news@oldhamera.com.