Judge questions the way sheriff awards contracts

(FRANKLIN COUNTY, Ohio) -- A judge is questioning Sheriff Jim Karnes' practice of hiring political friends to perform property appraisals -- and whether the fees for that work are justified.

On Nov. 22, Judge Richard S. Sheward sent a memo to his fellow judges on the Franklin County Common Pleas Court, urging an examination of how appraisal contracts are awarded.

"I believe that this Court has a duty to take a closer look at this issue before we sign any further payment for appraisers,'' Sheward wrote to the other judges.

Karnes acknowledges that three men tied to his campaign have received significant contracts to perform appraisals. But he said he doesn't know the politics of six others who also get work from his office.

The sheriff seeks appraisals for properties that are foreclosed upon for back taxes or unpaid mortgages. They're sold at monthly sheriff's auctions.

Typically, Karnes submits paperwork to a Common Pleas judge for approval of the appraisal fee.

Included in the memo from Sheward to fellow judges was an opinion he solicited from an attorney that says it's the judge, not the sheriff, who has the power to set fees for such appraisals.

The law states that no more than $10 can be paid for appraising a parcel for sheriff's auction without permission from the court, the attorney said.

Karnes said the court long ago established price guidelines for appraisals.

The practice of doling out the contracts to political friends was first questioned by Karnes' Republican opponent, Dennis Thomas. Karnes defeated Thomas on Nov. 7.

Thomas charged that three people connected with Karnes' campaign had received these amounts in appraisal fees since Karnes took office in 1993: John Hart, $1.2 million; Val Boehm, $970,000; and Arthur Lee, $500,000.

Hart and Lee are real-estate brokers and Boehm, owner of the Old Trail Inn on the West Side, said he has a real-estate license. The three said they are not licensed appraisers, but the law doesn't require a license to perform an appraisal for sheriff's auctions.

The three men said that Thomas' figures on their fees are inaccurate. Thomas said the Franklin County Clerk of Courts could provide records only to 1997 and that he had to estimate the appraisal payments before then.

Hart said he has received about $672,000 since 1993. Boehm and Lee said they earned considerably less but couldn't supply figures.

"If I received that much, I wouldn't be here,'' Lee said. "I would be in Florida.''

Sheward is withholding approval of a $450 payment -- $150 each to Hart, Boehm and Lee -- for appraisals they performed recently at a home on Frisco Drive near Hilliard. The home, put up for sheriff's sale, was valued at $114, 900.

Hart said it's necessary to get three appraisals for a sheriff's auction property.

When contacted at home yesterday, Sheward said his memo was meant to generate discussion among the judges rather than criticize Karnes.

"I think we routinely put a stamp of approval on them without looking at them,'' Sheward said.

Of the appraisal situation, Karnes said the court itself set the rate for appraisals -- about $150 each, but depending on the price of the home -- and that rate has remained the same for years.

Karnes acknowledges his political ties with Hart, Boehm and Lee. Hart acted as campaign-finance chairman for Karnes and contributed $800 to this year's campaign, and Boehm gave $1,850. Lee was the minority-affairs coordinator for Karnes' campaign.

When Earl Smith was the Franklin County sheriff before Karnes, the appraisal business went to his campaign manager and John W. Peck, Karnes said.

Peck, a Republican, published a newsletter distributed days before the Karnes/Thomas election that included Thomas' criticism of the sheriff's appraisals, Karnes said.

Karnes, a Democrat, said he questions whether Sheward is trying to get back at him because the sheriff years ago filed a complaint against the judge with the Ohio Supreme Court's Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline.

The complaint stemmed from the judge scolding Karnes' deputies in his court. Sheward is a Republican.

Both Sheward and Karnes said the complaint was dismissed. Ohio Supreme Court officials were not available yesterday.

"He can call it political, but that's not what this is about,'' Sheward said.

Lee said that it's a tradition that a sheriff awards appraisal contracts to members of his own party.

"When the Republicans have had control, they have hired Republican appraisers,'' Lee said.

But the three men say they put in the time for their pay.

For instance, in the case of the Frisco Drive property, Hart said that he, Boehm and Lee all went out to the house together. The three of them then made their own estimates of what the property was worth.

Hart said he spends between 3 1/2 and four hours on a routine appraisal, including checking comparable properties and real estate in the neighborhood.

He acknowledges that they seldom inspect the interior of a property that is up for auction.

"We're all kind of old-timers in the business,'' Hart said. Boehm said he has appraised an estimated 10,000 properties.

The payment for property appraisals doesn't come from the sheriff's budget. Hart said that he and others are paid from the proceeds after a property is auctioned.

(iSyndicate; The Columbus Dispatch; Nov. 25, 2000) Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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