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Ethics commission rules, but what next?

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Commission finds previous sheriff and two deputies violated operating procedures, but disciplinary action lies in hands of Fiscal Court

By Mallory Bilger

A ruling handed down by the Spencer County Ethics Commission has found previous Spencer County Sheriff Steve Coulter and two of his deputies guilty on two of three ethics violation charges brought against them by Taylorsville resident Lawrence Trageser, but it is unclear as to if or when any disciplinary action will be taken against the accused.

Trageser — who ran as an independent candidate for magistrate in Nov. 2010 — filed a complaint to the Ethics Commission Oct. 21, 2010. Trageser accused Coulter and deputies Kyle Bennett and Damon Jewell of improperly using the department’s cruisers to campaign for Coulter during the 2010 election season, as well as for personal use. The complaint also states that Coulter, the two named deputies and others, were wearing uniforms paid for by taxpayers while campaigning off duty.

Ethics Commission Chair Dwight Greenwell supplied The Spencer Magnet with a copy of the commission’s ruling, which was reached earlier this month in closed session.

According to the document, the commission found that Coulter, Bennett and Jewell did wear their uniforms while campaigning during the 2010 election season. The commission also found that sheriff’s officers used vehicles, which are the department’s property, for personal use while off duty. However, the commission found no evidence of sheriff’s officers using department vehicles for campaign purposes.

Trageser said he was somewhat pleased with the commission’s findings, but disagreed with some of the ruling.

“I’m completely surprised that they found them guilty on any counts. Not because they weren’t guilty, but because of my prior experience working with the ethics commission and the political spectrum that exists in Spencer County,” he said.

Trageser contested that the ruling was incorrect in stating that the sheriff’s department owns its vehicles. He said the vehicles are owned by the county, according to the administrative code.

He also said he believed the three should have been found guilty of using department cruisers for campaigning. In his original complaint, Trageser claimed that on Oct. 12, 2010, Coulter and Bennett drove to Stoneridge subdivision in the deputy’s personal vehicle to campaign door-to-door.

According to the complaint, Jewell joined the pair before his shift began.

“I disagree because the pictures that I’ve taken and the witnesses that called me before I physically went to Stoneridge and witnessed it all said the same thing. The sheriff’s cars were parked at the entrances of the subdivisions and they would go campaign,” he said.

In a previous article, Coulter maintained his innocence, claiming his department did no wrong.

“The vehicle was never used illegally. I don’t deny it was parked outside that subdivision. I feel like I’ve been picked on for no reason,” he said.

Although the commission found the accused to be acting against the county’s code of ethics, it also gave this recommendation: “In view of the fact that sheriff department officers are on call 24 hours, it is advantageous that the off duty officer be in uniform and in a county vehicle. In view of this fact, we recommend that the Standard Operating Procedure for the Spencer County Sheriff’s Office be amended to allow for limited personal use of Sheriff Office vehicles.”

Trageser said he agreed that it was beneficial for deputies to drive cruisers to and from their homes, and even short distances such as to lunch and back to the office. But he said cruisers should not be driven outside of the county or for long trips.

“If you’re going to take that car home for the purpose of using it (for law enforcement) it needs to stay there,” he said.

Although the commission has handed down its ruling, it is now unclear of what action will be taken next. The commission does not have jurisdiction to alter administrative code or decide any punitive action. The matter has now been handed over to the new Fiscal Court, and will be especially tricky because two of the three accused — Coulter and Bennett — are no longer employed at the sheriff’s department.

Spencer County Judge Executive Bill Karrer said in an interview Monday afternoon that he had received the commission’s ruling and tried to locate the sheriff’s department Standard Operating Procedures document, but was unable to do so. Karrer said he had only been aware of the ruling for a short time.

“I have to admit, I haven’t read it. I’ve been a little busy,” he said.

Karrer felt that he and Fiscal Court would need more guidance from County Attorney Ruth Hollan, who is currently out of town. He said he felt some attention would be given to the matter, but was unsure as to what, if anything, the court could do to the two individuals no longer employed by the county.

“I don’t think that nothing will be done, but I don’t know if some of the parties will think enough is done,” he said, noting that the matter will probably not be discussed at the Jan. 24 Fiscal Court meeting because Hollan has been out of town.

He said that the court would review the sheriff’s department operating procedures and the county’s ethics code to help clarify usage for department uniforms and vehicles, as well as get more advice from Hollan about how the court should proceed.

Trageser said he was skeptical that any action would be taken against the accused.

“Will they reprimand Damon Jewell? Will they also pursue an investigation into other deputies? Will they refer to Ruth Ann (Hollan) for prosecution? I don’t know if I’m even going to get a letter of reprimand put in their files,” he said.

Karrer said if Trageser was unhappy with the way Fiscal Court deals with the situation, he has the freedom always to pursue litigation.

“The complaining parties can always sue. I don’t think we’re that far yet, but that is an option,” Karrer said.