Athens County faces abuse of power issues

A small-town police chief who reportedly shared his bed and gave protection to a woman wanted on drug charges is the latest official within Athens County to lose-at least temporarily-his position of authority.

But suspended Glouster Police Chief Lucas Mace is hardly the only official within the county who has come up against criminal charges in recent years. A host of arrests and charges against elected officials and departmental leaders-all accused of abusing power in one way or another-hints at the pervasiveness of the problem.

But at the same time, the very public cases against Mace and others should give county residents confidence in the system, said Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn.

“The underlying message is if individuals in Athens County are doing something wrong, they’re going to be held accountable no matter what their position,” he said.

Two years ago, in a village six miles to the southwest of Glouster, Buchtel Police Chief Keslie Lanning Jr. lost his job after he and his girlfriend purchased drugs from undercover officers from the Athens County Sheriff’s Office. Lanning was convicted of permitting drug abuse, a fifth-degree felony. He was sentenced to probation, and community service and was ordered to surrender his law enforcement certification.

A former mayor in Jacksonville, George Pallo, resigned from his post in January 2013, amid allegations that he stole funds from the village’s fire fund. Pallo ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of theft in office and two counts of grand theft and was sentenced to five years probation, nearly $20,000 in restitution, and was banned from holding public office again.

The sheriff’s office is also in the midst of allegations of corruption, against elected Sheriff Patrick Kelly. Kelly accepted a March suspension from the job while 23 felony corruption charges against him are resolved, but has maintained his innocence in the matter.

Kelly declined to talk about the pending case Friday, but said he has faith in the autonomous way in which Athens County governs itself, with no one office holding authority over another.

“I don’t think there’s a problem with the system…Every office holder has their own individual offices to run and nobody has authority over another office,” he said.

The public has its own system of checks and balances-elections-which they use to either reinforce or revoke their trust in public officials, Kelly said.

“People understand what is going on in their communities and are capable of dealing with their own communities,” he said.

Kelly also said Friday that he felt the public was still behind him.

“I have no problem with the public. The public supports me 100 percent,” he said.

But that public support might actually play a role in the buildup that seems to come with crimes of power, noted Dave Yost, a former Delaware County Prosecutor who has handled several public corruption cases, including that against former Noble County Sheriff Landon Smith in 2009.

“I think people start seeing office as an entitlement. (Abuse of power) generally builds up slowly. It’s the silent song of power sung over and over again over a period of weeks, months, years,” said Yost, who now acts as Ohio Auditor of State and still plays an active role with the Ohio Ethics Commission.

In the case of Smith, who had served as sheriff for 37 years when allegations of theft in office, unlawful interest in a public contract, and other concerns came to light, the public support-or at least interest-was still there the day Yost announced the indictments against him.

Around 400 people gathered around the courthouse steps that May day to hear the allegations, recalled Yost.

“He was known and active and in a lot of ways beloved,” he said.

Three months before Smith’s indictment, the Mayor of Caldwell fired police chief Brian Langley on the heels of a drunk driving arrest.

In Athens, internal oversight has brought some cases to light, said Blackburn. In the case of Mace, other officers came forward with concerns, he said.

There is no cross-departmental version of checks and balances in government offices, said Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider.

“Citizens can complain and there can be a complaint from a member of the staff, and there is a system in place for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to investigate,” he said.

The system allows crimes to be prosecuted, but policing for them around the clock is an impractical use of time, he noted.

Incidents like that involving Mace, Kelly, Pallo, Smith, and Lanning take their toll on public trust, said Glouster Mayor Miles Wolf.

“Moral dipped pretty low,” said Wolf of the village attitude after Mace’s indictment last month.

The 12 charges included obstruction, theft in office, dereliction of duty, possession of criminal tools and failure to aid a police officer.

Now Wolf is trying to help bolster public confidence by nudging the remaining police officers to be a more visible village presence, and he is taking the same approach within the police department.

He plans to enact his own system of administrative checks on the office with regular meetings and reviews.

“Before, I was giving 100 percent reign to the police chiefs and if there were issues, they’d bring them to me,” said Wolf who has overseen three chiefs, including Mace, since taking office in 2012.