Former Mount Sterling Mayor Charlie Neff took the stand at his own trial Tuesday, testifying he was “unaware” of the dealings of Joe Johnson, the former village administrator, whom Neff is accused of allowing to cash-in various forms of paid leave in excess.
The 80-year-old’s trial in Madison County Common Pleas Court began in the morning with Robert Smith from the Auditor’s office prosecuting the case and Scott Mergenthaler defending Neff.
Smith’s case against Neff focused on a run-down of his four charges, two felony counts of theft in office, a misdemeanor falsification count and a misdemeanor charge of dereliction of duty.
During opening statements, he cited various documents that implicated Neff in the first two charges, which resulted from giving Johnson, the former village administrator who was sentenced in March to other theft charges, receiving an excess of cash-ins from vacation and sick pay.
One of them, which Smith and various witnesses read aloud, was a letter sent to Vicki Sheets, the former fiscal officer, on directing her to give Johnson cash-ins for 350 hours of sick pay and 560 hours for unused vacation, 80 and 200 hours respectively more than what Johnson was allotted by village ordinance and decisions by the village finance committee. According to Smith, that amounted to about $21,000 more than what the committee had approved for him to receive in these cash-ins.
While not denying Neff signed the checks for Johnson and the letter directing Sheets, Mergenthaler gave a different story, describing Neff as a wounded and distracted man as he was caring for his terminally ill wife while running the village.
“Was he negligent? Absolutely,” he told the court. “But was it done knowingly with criminal intent?”
Neff’s testimony, when questioned by Mergenthaler, started with his wife, who contracted a terminal illness in 2006, the same year he retired from his job. Neff was almost drawn to tears when describing their life together and some of the things he had to do for her while her condition deteriorated, such as having to give her insulin shots directly to her stomach.
By 2015 her condition worsened and he appeared to have grown more reliant and trusting of Johnson. Neff said this was from his perception of the former administrator as a hard worker for the village and brought in millions of grant dollars for public works projects.
“Joe, as far as I know was a very honest man,” said Neff. “He was always good to myself and my wife. She called him a second son.”
This trust then led him to approve things Johnson brought him, admitting he never double checked documents Johnson brought him, such as the checks. Neff said he signed these blank checks and allowed Johnson to fill them in, sometime around 2015. He also said that the letter given to Sheets was not typed by him, but by Johnson, who had Neff sign it.
However, during Smith’s questioning, it was revealed by witness Mark Pitstick, the village’s law director, and Neff himself that the former mayor had attended the finance committee meeting discussing the time off cash-ins for Johnson.
There was also the dereliction of duty charge, which was over a village ordinance that required the mayor to direct the fiscal officer to allocate 25 percent of Mount Sterling’s income tax revenue to a capital improvements fund, which Pitstick described as a “kind of savings account to fix up the village,” such as sidewalk repair and more.
Pitstick testified he spoke last year to the fiscal officer at the time, Cindy Miller, on the status of the fund.
Miller testified she could not find the fund, which should have had a few years’ worth of revenue in it.
Vicki Sheets, the fiscal officer who was there at the time of the ordinance was put into place, also said she was never directed to set up the fund and had no way of knowing, as she was hired to be in the office once a week.
Neff couldn’t recall why it had not been set up.
Smith also pressed him on the wiping of his hard drive, which was full of public documents, by Madison Newsome, a former village employee who received goods from Johnson purchased using village funds.
Neff said that he asked her to delete some files which he said was a directive by the auditor to occasionally clean up files, not all of them.
The trial is set to continue Wednesday at 9 a.m. Mergenthaler is expected to call at least two more witnesses before the jury begins its deliberations.
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617, or on Twitter @msfkwiat.