Reaction to the arrest of Joe Johnson, former Mount Sterling village administrator, has been shock and surprise from many of the village’s officials and residents.
On the surface, they say Johnson appeared to be fulfilling his role as village administrator up until January when he resigned. He cited harassment on social media as a reason for the resignation.
He was arrested Tuesday morning, charged with stealing nearly $1 million in village funds over a four-year period, then falsifying records to cover it up.
Johnson was indicted by the Madison County grand jury last week on 30 felony counts. Those charges include racketeering — a first-degree felony, as well as theft in office, money laundering, record tampering and failing to file personal income taxes.
Johnson was free to write checks and charge on village accounts without approval by former Mount Sterling Mayor Charlie Neff or others, the warrant says. He made about $300,000 in purchases from 191 businesses on a village Chase credit card he opened himself.
Other items bought with village money included nine guns, two washers and dryers, electronics and video-gaming systems, furniture, tools, vacation/trips, cabinets, four portable air conditioners — and even dental work, the warrant says.
A Dodge Charger, Ford F-350 pick-up and Ford Mustang were among the vehicles confiscated on Tuesday.
For village councilman David Timmons, Johnson’s allegations have been “one big shock.”
“I still haven’t gotten over the shock. I didn’t realize what was going on and how it got so big, it’s been difficult,” Timmons said.
“I had no idea what he was involved in. When I first heard about it, in some ways I felt betrayed. Personally, I think it’s a dark blow for the village. It hurt me in a way. How a person could be in that position and do those things?”
Timmons has confidence in John Martin, current village administrator saying the village is “on the right track with Martin.”
Mary Lou Stiverson-Ratliff, council president pro-tem and finance committee chair, deferred to fiscal officer Cindy Miller in an email Wednesday when asked about the state of village finances.
“I’m not in a position right now to give a statement about finances. As the investigation is still ongoing, I have no comment,” Stiverson-Ratliff stated.
Miller could not be reached for comment by press time.
Ed Mason, a member of the Mt. Sterling Community Center board, said he had liked Johnson personally and felt, in his dealings with Johnson worked hard.
Mason said Johnson assisted greatly in the further development of the community center. A house which stood in front of the center was demolished and the land cleared to make way for an improved driveway into the center.
“He was a humongous help getting that house cleared out,” Mason said of Johnson. “Any dealing I had with him, he worked really hard and he cared.”
Mason said he was surprised as the allegations against Johnson of theft from the village, income tax evasion and other charges surfaced.
“He went a little goofy,” Mason said. “You wouldn’t think that out of him.”
Mason said he feels for Johnson’s children and their potential loss of their dad to potential jail time.
“The children really need him right now,” Mason said. “I’d rather have my dad than a million bucks.”
The news also came as a shock to Lisa Schwartz, project coordinator for Jay-Car Construction Co. The Mount Sterling business has worked with the village and Johnson, personally, on various projects and is building the new $14 million water treatment plant.
“The reaction is pretty shocking,” Schwartz said Wednesday.
Resident Darrell Cooper has lived in the Mount Sterling vicinity for many years.
“I never met anybody that didn’t like Joe,” Cooper said. “There may be some, but I never met them.”
Cooper noticed Johnson’s work ethic around the village, saying if there was work to be done, Johnson would be there, shovel in hand.
“He made an impression on the average resident,” Cooper said. “The things he was involved in — meaning the recent indictments — never came to light. He was visible. People trusted him.”
Cooper added he felt sorry and questioned what mindset Johnson was in to engage in the activity which brought the allegations.
“He had to know somewhere down the line, there’d be a day of restitution for the things he did money wise and otherwise. You can only do those things so long. There’ll be a payday.”
Johnson is being held in Tri-County Regional Jail on no bond. His arraignment is scheduled for 9 a.m. on July 27 in Madison County Common Pleas Court.
Dean Shipley can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617, on Facebook at Dean Shipley or via Twitter @DeanAShipley.