By Anne Thrower
(MCCRACKEN COUNTY, Ken.) -- Guinea pigs. That's what McCracken County Sheriff Frank Augustus says he, Chief Deputy Sheriff Terry Long and former full-time deputy Dennis Hines feel like as the first people to come before the county's ethics commission.
"I honestly think the whole thing should have been put off until the county's audit is done, and more than one office should be up there sitting before the ethics commission," he said.
The McCracken County Ethics Commission on Thursday concluded that Augustus, Long and Hines were not in violation of the county code of ethics. As part of the ruling, the commission found no probable cause for further proceedings against the three.
During a two-hour, mostly closed-door meeting, the three-member commission questioned the three. Long owns Emergency Equipment Specialists, which installs and maintains emergency equipment on police cruisers, and Hines owns Hines Automotive Repair.
Augustus was questioned the longest, about 30 minutes. Long and Hines each were questioned about 15 minutes.
In announcing the decision, newly appointed commission chairman Andrew Coiner said there was no minimal factual basis to find probable cause in the case.
"There is nothing that prohibits a county employee from doing business with the county," Coiner said. The code applies only if the business dealings conflict with the employee's county-related duties or if the employee uses his position to obtain inside information or to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself.
"The testimony today and the sheriff's responses to others does not indicate that any of that was present," Coiner said. "Nobody used their position to gain advantage over anybody else that could do business with the county."
Long's business dealings last year were put up for public bid and accepted. In Hines' situation, state law does not require the county to bid individual expenses under $10,000, even though Hines does more than $10,000 in total business each year with the county.
Augustus said he spends about $40,000 annually for automotive-related expenses and roughly half that amount goes to Hines, who does the major repairs like overhauling engines. Hines is currently an unpaid special deputy sheriff, but had formerly worked full time for Augustus.
Augustus, Hines and Long have maintained all along there has been no wrongdoing. So Thursday's ruling came as no surprise to them.
They said they were relieved that it was over. But they questioned why they had to be singled out. Augustus said fiscal court has never told him to stop doing business with Long or Hines.
The county's ordinance does require Long to file an annual disclosure report -- something Long said he has done annually since 1996. Long started doing business with the county in 1993 prior to Augustus taking office.
State auditor Ed Hatchett in April suggested the ethics review after county commissioner Ronnie Freeman raised questions about the sheriff's doing business with Long and Hines.
Hatchett, in his report, said the business dealings could represent an "area of noncompliance" with the county ordinance. He questioned $5,451 that was paid in 1998 to Long's business. The 1998 audit report said $13,857 was paid to Dennis Hines Automotive to repair vehicles.
Augustus questioned the timing of the ethics commission meeting, the first ever in McCracken County. The county has had an ethics ordinance since 1994.
Currently, the state is conducting a routine audit of McCracken County operations. Augustus said he wonders whether a decision on this case was planned so that other county offices would not have to go through what the sheriff's office has gone though. By finding no probable cause in the sheriff's case, Augustus said he believes that ruling will affect other departments in similar situations.
But Coiner said he sees no correlation. The state auditor's office was not even interested in attending Thursday's meeting to present its reasons for recommending the review, he said.
"They said they were reluctant to get involved in local politics, which I thought was kind of odd since they referred it to us to begin with," Coiner said.
In addition, the auditor found no reason to refer anything to the ethics commission in its 1999 report, even though Augustus continued to do business with Long and Hines, Coiner said.
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