Charlie Neff, ex-leader of Mount Sterling, found guilty

Former Mount Sterling Mayor Charlie Neff was found guilty Wednesday by a Madison County jury of three out of the four charges against him.

Neff was found guilty of theft in office, falsification and dereliction of duty.

The theft charge was over a check Neff had signed off for Joe Johnson, the former village administrator, to receive $38,530 for 560 vacation hours cashed in as he left village service, an excess of $9,530 and 200 hours respectively.

This third degree felony charge ties directly with the falsification charge, a first degree misdemeanor. This charge stems from a letter signed by Neff which he claims Johnson typed up for him.

It was given by Neff to the fiscal officer at the time, Vicki Sheets, directing her to pay the administrator for the excess hours of paid leave to cash-in.

His final guilty count is a second degree misdemeanor for dereliction of duty. This was over an ordinance the village council passed in 2013, which required Neff to take 25 percent of the village’s tax revenue and apply it towards a capital improvements fund. This did not occur, according to testimonies Tuesday by Village Law Director Mark Pitstick along with former fiscal officers Cindy Miller and Sheets.

The only count Neff wasn’t found guilty on was another third-degree felony charge for theft in office. It also dealt with cash-ins for time off, in this instance sick leave. Johnson was entitled to leave with a payout for 240 hours. He instead received well over that with a payout that was more than $12,000, well above what council had approved and ordinances allowed.

Both payouts also were given at a rate of more than $47 an hour, essentially the rate for a salary of $100,000, well above Johnson’s official salary of $60,000.

The verdict was hard fought over by both attorneys, Robert Smith, the special prosecutor from the auditor’s office, along with Neff’s lawyer Scott Mergenthaler. The duo doubled down on their respective closing arguments for or against Neff’s guilt in Common Pleas Court Wednesday.

Smith again focused his case on the evidence presented, the checks, letters and other records showing Neff’s actions.

“He didn’t live up to his job and violated his oath,” said Smith.

One thing the prosecutor focused on was the improbability Neff was unaware of what he was doing with the documents giving Johnson the money and directing Sheets to pay him, citing previous testimony.

“He was at all three [finance] meetings, he should have known,” he added. “It doesn’t matter if he typed [the letter] or not, he is the one who gave it to Vicki Sheets.”

Despite Neff not directly taking money, he added that Johnson and Neff’s close friendship was enough of a reason to find the former mayor criminally liable. Essentially, Neff gave money to his friend, money that his friend wasn’t entitled to according to village law.

“It’s not his money,” said Smith. “It’s the public’s money.”

Mergenthaler urged the jury to look at the facts, arguing that Neff may have been negligent on all of the counts, but not criminal citing Neff’s testimony that he was unaware of what Johnson was doing, mostly due to blind trust. He said it was Johnson’s M-O.

“He duped the entire city administration,” said Mergenthaler.

He gave the caveat that the mayor had made major errors, such as signing blank checks and not double checking documents, but that was not enough to be considered criminal.

“Was he negligent?” he said. “Probably, in that regard… But, Charlie Neff should remain as he is right now, a free man.”

The closing arguments wrapped up around noon. The jury deliberated the case for approximately five and half hours.

At one point, around 4 p.m. they returned to open court telling visiting Judge Joseph T. Campbell, a retired justice from Greene County Common Pleas Court, they were at “a deadlock” over two unspecified charges.

Campbell directed them to return to discuss the case and reach a verdict, which they did about an hour and a half later.

Neff’s sentencing will occur on Nov. 16 at 9 a.m., where he could have up to five and a half years in prison and a maximum fine of $11,750.

In the meantime, he will still be held on recognizance bond with no house arrest or electronic monitoring.

Neff is the fourth person to be convicted in the aftermath of thefts made by Johnson from Mount Sterling’s funds, which the Ohio auditor’s office said could be as high as $1 million.

With the end of this case, Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost released a statement stating that this was the final case to result from their extensive vetting of the village.

“With this conviction, all of those responsible for the theft of funds or negligence in allowing the thefts to occur in Mount Sterling have been prosecuted,” Auditor Dave Yost said. “Unfortunately, the scars left by this dark period of selfishness and lax oversight will impact this community for years to come.”

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Former mayor convicted on three out of four charges

By Maximilian Kwiatkowski

Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617, or on Twitter @msfkwiat.