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Reconstructing Dayton unearths county corruption in the prosecutors office

Following an anonymous tip to this site, Reconstructing Dayton [1], a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, has revealed that the Montgomery County’s Prosecutor’s Office diverted “surplus funds” into extremely large employee bonuses [2], which cost the office/taxpayers over $1 million. This comes at a time when the county has enacted austerity measures because of the pandemic and property [3]values [3] are set [3] to increase 15%.

The bonuses range anywhere from $4,500 to $23,000. The smallest bonus amounted to 9.0% of the employee’s salary, with the largest equaling 21.6%. The average was much closer to the latter number—15.4%. The average bonus: $8,851.35. The county has made a show of tightening the budget for the pandemic [4] and foregoing pay raises. Apparently that was all for show as they increased bonuses to make up for it.

We were told it was a common practice in all county offices, but, most of our public records requests were stonewalled, and for good reason: this is graft. And the delays in turning over public records is criminal as well, but Ohio’s sunshine laws are pretty much a joke, since no one ever gets tossed out of office for violating them, even though it’s a legal remedy.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, graft is defined as “gains secured by corruption.” Wikipedia [5] has an even better definition, calling it “the unscrupulous use of a politician’s authority for personal gain.” We’re still sorting out the legality of this issue, which is more difficult than it should be, mostly because Ohio Revised Code (ORC) is written in a language that only lawyers could love.

The bonuses violate the spirit of the law, if not the letter, because technically, bonuses amount to a way to influence and control public servants who are supposed to work for the taxpaying public, not the elected officials. That’s why ORC suggests that all pay raises be voted on publicly.

It is our opinion that county Prosecutor Mat Heck has clearly violated the public trust and has unscrupulously used his political authority to benefit his employees and maintain his control over them.

Here’s what the ORC says:

(D) No public official or employee shall use or authorize the use of the authority or influence of office or employment to secure anything of value or the promise or offer of anything of value that is of such a character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to that person’s duties.

(E) No public official or employee shall solicit or accept anything of value that is of such a character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to that person’s duties.

(F) No person shall promise or give to a public official or employee anything of value that is of such a character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to that person’s duties.

https://codes.ohio.gov/orc/102.03 [6]

The Prosecutor’s Office isn’t Mat Heck Incorporated. It does not exist to enrich its employees. It exists to provide justice for the citizens of Montgomery County and it is supposed to pay its employees a fair market value in order to achieve that goal.

When a county office runs a budget surplus, the right thing to do is to return that money to the county. It can be used for other county programs, to pay off debts, improve safety in the jail, pay for settlements against the jail, or even lower taxes. That this comes at a time when a pandemic has placed a financial strain on so many is all the more galling, but that shouldn’t matter.

This illegal bonus system further reveals the greater systemic issues with politics in Montgomery County. After all, how does Mat Heck personally gain from being the boss of the year every year? He has been the Montgomery County Prosecutor since 1992. Since at least 2000 (the earliest the Board of Elections website keeps records), he has run unopposed. Surely any attorney in Montgomery County knows that to oppose Heck would be career suicide. What Mat Heck’s 125 content employees really provide is a large voting block of the local Democratic party central committee. I have personally seen his vindictiveness in action when his prosecutors failed to get a grand jury to prosecute Jennifer Selhorst for embezzlement from my firm, but did prosecute the much simpler case against her for a much smaller amount for the disabled veteran I care for [7].

The local political bureaucracy is run like a private club. I’ve called it the Monarchy of Montgomery County [8] for a long time. It’s like a secret society that operates out in the open. They look out for one another and ensure that money circulates to the right campaigns, the right operatives, and the right businesses. Make no mistake, these bonuses are not about job performance in the offices these individuals serve. It’s about fidelity to party and preventing any electoral disruptions.  It’s how party trolls like Russ Joseph get put into appointed positions twice to lose in elections as an incumbent.

That’s what happens when local government becomes a friends and family business. The bureaucrats have all looked after themselves, working as a collective against the interests of the electorate to benefit themselves. It’s graft. This situation is no different than old Tammany Hall [9] in Gilded Age New York City. Our officials are no longer in the service of government, they are in the business of government. This is why the FBI’s calling it a “Culture of Corruption” is true- they just are impotent imposters.

Reconstructing Dayton will follow up this initial report with deeper analysis that looks into who is getting the biggest pieces of pie and what they do to obtain them. Hopefully the Dayton Daily News will eventually take notice, but so far they have ignored press releases from Reconstructing Dayton despite undertaking newsworthy initiatives like drafting a ranked-choice voting petition [10] for Dayton. Fortunately, the Dayton Business Journal has taken notice. Read their piece about Reconstructing Dayton here [11].

Go to Reconstructing Dayton’s [1] website and sign up for their newsletters to keep up to date as more information about the Montgomery County bonus scandal unfolds. Our sources tell us this extends well beyond the Prosecutor’s Office and as more public records requests are fulfilled we will compile and share the information with the public. Also consider donating to Reconstructing Dayton [12] to keep this type of investigative journalism that you won’t find in the local papers going.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed [13]! If you wish to support this blog and independent journalism in Dayton, consider donating [14]. All of the effort that goes into writing posts and creating videos comes directly out of my pocket, so any amount helps!
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Thomas E Ruddick

Let’s put this in some perspective.
100% of prosecutors report receiving a bonus every year. So the practice is common.
https://www.comparably.com/salaries/salaries-for-prosecutor
However, the average bonus for prosecutors is just under $10,000, which is around 11% of the average salary, An average of over 15% is pretty generous.
Moreover note that not all staff in the office are prosecutors. By my count, approximately 1/3 of the office staff are lawyers; the rest are paralegals, legal secretaries, office administrators, program coordinators–who likely are paid less than the attorneys on the staff.
Seems to me that the practice of doling out bonuses for public employees, unless tied to measurable outcomes, is inherently wrong and leads to exactly the kind of devotion to supervisor rather than public that this event is claiming.
Especially bad, as noted, in a time of hardship for most citizens.
Perhaps someone could probe a little into Heck’s ongoing attempts to curry favor with crime victims by using public resources. I have nothing against comforting victims but not as a function of government.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Esrati
Mike Bock

David, you’ve not responded to Dr. Ruddick’s information about the fact that this bonus system is standard practice in Ohio. I’m trying to understand why you’ve concluded that Mr. Heck’s use of an accepted practice is “corruption” and that it is fair to claim that Heck is guilty of “graft.”

You explain: “The bonuses violate the spirit of the law, if not the letter, because technically, bonuses amount to a way to influence and control public servants who are supposed to work for the taxpaying public, not the elected officials.”

So, you are saying that Mr. Heck can be credibly accused of graft because he violated the “spirit of the law”?

Alexander Sharp writes: “It does appear that the Ohio Revised Code gives Heck a wide latitude to determine employee compensation, as outline in ORC 325.17:”

The officers mentioned in section 325.27 of the Revised Code may appoint and employ the necessary deputies, assistants, clerks, bookkeepers, or other employees for their respective offices, shall fix the compensation of those employees and discharge them, and shall file certificates of that action with the county auditor. The employees’ compensation shall not exceed, in the aggregate, for each office, the amount fixed by the board of county commissioners for that office.

It is reasonable that the law gives the prosecutor the authority to “influence and control public servants” through a system of compensation. The prosecutor is empowered by law to fix the compensation of his or her employees. An elaborate bonus system, evidently, is part of Heck’s system, evidently a system approved and supported by the county commissioners — all Democrats. When all is said and done, I’d bet the total compensation of Heck’s employees is in line with compensation in other prosecutor’s offices in Ohio.

Mike Bock

David. Tell me if I have any of this wrong. The Prosecutor Heck’s practice of financing end of year bonus with unspent money from the budget has been on-going for many years. It is sanctioned by the County Commissioners. This practice is wide-spread in prosecutors’ offices throughout Ohio. The Montgomery County Auditor also distributes unspent money in the budget on bonuses. The amount of money Heck spent on bonuses this year was more than usual. Rather than the usual 10%, or so, of salaries it was more like 15% — with some individuals a receiving much larger percentage than that. Heck, himself, received no bonus.

What I get from ORC 325.17 is that the law gives the prosecutor a lot of power to run his office. The law empowers the prosecutor to use compensation as a reward or punishment to make certain that the bureaucracy answers directly to him. This is fair because as the elected official, the prosecutor is the only one truly responsible to the public. He needs to have corresponding authority to run his office.

As I get it, the three Democrats on the Montgomery County Commission empower Matt Heck to be the sole decider on bonuses for his employees — and empowers him to fund these bonuses with unspent money from the Prosecutor’s Budget. I’m assuming that it is in the Commission’s power to nip these bonuses in the bud, if the members would choose to do so.

I’m all in favor of muckraking and getting to the truth of things, and I always appreciate your efforts. In the past your efforts have served the public well. Now, you have done a service by raising attention to the end of year bonus practice in county offices. But, it doesn’t follow that Heck is corrupt or guilty of graft. Good advice is to just give it up. The way to address this bonus practice, I’m thinking, would be to petition the County Commissions to establish new regulations. Heck was just following established practice.

Mike Bock

The word “corrupt” and the word “graft” — especially as used in reference to the behavior of elected officials — have accepted definitions. We need to keep anchored in the real world. I’ve outlined the facts as I understand them to be and you offer no contradiction. You offer no evidence that Heck’s use of generous end of year bonus resulted in material gain for him. You need to be open to the idea that Heck’s end-of-year bonuses is a legitimate management strategy.  

You may have good reasons — based on your many years of activism — to refer to Heck as an “anti-democratic mobster.” It’s all recorded on your web-site. But, Heck’s use of a generous end-of-the the bonus doesn’t support that accusation.

Mike Bock

ORC 325.17 says that the county prosecutor “shall fix the compensation” of his or her employees. That’s a lot of authority. The only limitation is: “employees’ compensation shall not exceed, in the aggregate, for each office, the amount fixed by the board of county commissioners for that office.” So, this would imply that the prosecutor does not need the approval of the commissioners for giving raises or for distributing bonuses — so long as the total compensation for the year doesn’t exceed the amount budgeted by the Commission. 

You are claiming: “If he (Heck) wants to give pay raises- he has to run it by the County Commission. They had a pay freeze. If he wants to give bonuses- again, an expenditure of county tax dollars that was entrusted to him- he would have to get approval BY VOTE- of the county commission.” 

Maybe you are correct. The Commissioners, since they control the purse, if they chose to do so, could make all kinds of requirements. They could prohibit this practice of awarding bonuses, but instead they have condoned this practice for many years. 

The law that says, “the compensation of each such deputy, assistant, bookkeeper, clerk, and other employee shall be paid biweekly from the county treasury.” The law requires a biweekly payment schedule be used. However, it could be argued that the law doesn’t require that all payments made on that schedule be of equal amount.

The segment of the ORC that you quote — “No public official or employee shall use or authorize the use of the authority or influence of office or employment to secure anything of value … “ — I think does not apply to a system of bonuses. Yes, Mr. Heck probably uses bonuses to attempt to motivate his employees — to accomplish the mission of his office and to make his reputation shine. He will give some employees raises and he will fire others. It is his office. He has a lot of designated power in that office.

Alexander Sharp

@Mike Bock
You raise some legitimate concerns and I hope that, in my upcoming posts on Reconstructing Dayton, I am able to provide answers.
I do want to emphasize that the word “graft” was not thrown around lightly. Other county offices provide bonuses and, while one could argue it’s not the best use of public funds, I wouldn’t describe it as graft because 1) the scale 2) the amount of bonuses are not determined by the amount of surplus funds. Basically, Heck’s system is to take all the money that is left over for the year and divide it among his employees.
I have not looked further into Mr. Ruddick’s claims that this aligns with what other prosecutors make but that’s certainly interesting. However, I’m not sure that “everyone’s doing it” excuses the practice. Prosecutors are some of the most powerful politicians in our system and there are major challenges to holding prosecutors accountable in our justice system. A county official I spoke with claimed that no one is willing to question the prosecutor because “he’s our attorney.”
I agree that we need to be “open to the idea that Heck’s end-of-year bonuses is a legitimate management strategy.” However, based on the research I have conducted so far, I believe that it is not. I still have at least three more articles to write on this subject over on Reconstructing Dayton and I think they will answer a lot of the questions you brought up in this thread. The first will deal with a specific legal/moral issue the bonuses create. The second will look at how these bonuses personally benefit Heck. The third will look at bonuses in other county offices (pending some public records). Concerning the third, I will put in some public records requests from surrounding counties and other large Ohio counties like Franklin, Cuyahoga, and Summit. I’ll dig a bit deeper into how widespread this practice is among prosecutors.

Mike Bock

@Alexander Sharp
Thanks, Alexander. I appreciate the work you are doing and I am looking forward to reading your articles.