Suspended Athens County Sheriff Pat Kelly kept a calm composure as he was led out of the Athens County Common Pleas Court on Thursday in handcuffs — guilty on 18 of 25 counts — as his wife, Debra, faced him and mouthed the words: “I love you. I love you.”
The jury’s verdict, reached after more than 16 hours of deliberation, capped a nearly three-week public corruption trial, during which the state argued Kelly illegally used his office for personal benefit.
Visiting Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove read the jury’s verdict to the packed courtroom at about 5:30 p.m., before deeming Kelly a “flight risk” and determining he should be jailed without bond until his sentencing on March 20.
As of press time, Kelly was being held in the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail.
Kelly was determined to be guilty for:
- 12 counts of theft in office — including the sale for personal benefit of county property to McKee Auto Parts & Recycling
- One count of perjury for not handing over sheriff’s office documents to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation when asked and lying under oath in September 2013 saying he had provided all documents relating to confidential informants
- One count of failure to keep a cashbook, which would have documented expenditures and assets of the sheriff’s department
- Three counts of theft, relating to money taken from sheriff’s office funds that was spent on meals, money withdrawn from the sheriff’s campaign account for personal use and cash raised through a campaign spaghetti dinner that was taken by Kelly
- One count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, which included Kelly instructing friend Pearl Graham to facilitate criminal actions by selling county property, and then ignoring the requirement to provide car titles when scrapping vehicles at McKee’s
Kelly was determined to be not guilty relating to charges of:
- Dereliction of duty, which alleged he and his office recklessly handed out concealed carry licenses without proper background checks and fees
- Obstructing official business by destroying records pertaining to the case
- Tampering with evidence related to the BCI investigation
- Tampering with records related to the BCI investigation
- Money laundering through pocketing election donations
- One count of theft relating to missing money from the sheriff’s cashbox
- One count of theft in office relating to that missing money
Kelly was elected sheriff in 2008 and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2012 amid several scandals plaguing his office. Among them was the accusation by an Albany man who claimed Kelly had assaulted him near a campaign fundraising event in Jacksonville. The man’s complaint was filed to Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn, who asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office to investigate the man’s claims.
The state investigated Kelly for well over a year.
In January 2014, after a grand jury in Athens handed down a 25-count indictment against the sheriff, DeWine said the initial complaint led investigators to find further allegations of misconduct.
“We were asked to come in and check out an alleged assault,” DeWine said at the time. “Once we got into the case it was evident there was a lot more there.”
That March, an Ohio Supreme Court-appointed commission suspended Kelly from office. Not long afterward, the Athens County Commissioners decided that, pending the conclusion of his jury trial, Kelly would continue to collect a paycheck.
The commissioners appointed Rodney Smith sheriff as interim that spring.
Athens County voters elect a sheriff every four years. Smith, who was watching the trial from the gallery on and off for weeks, said he will run for sheriff in 2016, when the term Kelly won in 2012 will end.
“We’re going to move forward,” Smith said. “We’re glad this is over. We can finally move forward.
“We can continue to put our office in the right direction.”
Blackburn echoed that sentiment in a news release.
“Our system of justice has brought a close to these matters,” he said in the release.
THE STATE AND THE DEFENSE WENT TOE-TO-TOE
Assistant Attorney General James Roberts used his Jan. 28 opening statement to the jury to characterize Kelly’s time in office as one laced with corruption and greed, before bringing several witnesses to the stand for the next two weeks.
Alternatively, Kelly’s attorney, Scott Wood, used his statement to describe the sheriff with a larger-than-life demeanor as “human,” and urged the jury to keep an open mind when deliberating each of the sheriff’s 25 counts — 23 felonies, and two misdemeanors.
Judge Cosgrove thanked the jurors before she dismissed them Thursday evening, saying they had endured a long and complicated case and served their country well.
The man who would handcuff Kelly would be the state’s lead investigator in the case, Kevin Cooper, who had spent hours testifying in Kelly’s trial and many more watching from the gallery.
THE EVIDENCE & ALLEGATIONS
Cooper had been working on Kelly’s case since late 2012, he testified in court, and was primarily asked to investigate the allegations that Kelly had mishandled county money.
He was given a series of receipts in May 2013 from McKee’s scrap yard that Kelly didn’t account for. The receipts suggested he was selling county property, including deputy vehicles, for personal profit.
That June, Cooper received a call from Kelly, who confirmed he spent some of the money received from scrap yard sales but still had hundreds left in his wallet.
Cooper also told the jury that, after subpoenaing McKee’s employees, he recovered documents suggesting Kelly received thousands of dollars in cash from transactions dating back to 2009.
The defense maintained throughout the trial that Kelly hadn’t committed a crime.
Kelly was found guilty of stealing money from campaign donors in 2008, which Clinton Stanley, his former campaign manager, gave testimony to Feb. 4. Stanley told the jury Kelly directed him to write campaign checks directly to Kelly’s personal bank account.
Stanley inappropriately collected two separate cash donations of $500 each during Kelly’s campaign, which Stanley turned into checks. A campaign donor is only able to give $100 in cash, though Stanley didn’t know that at the time.
One check was deposited into Kelly’s campaign account; the other was written to Kelly’s personal account at his request.
Kelly also withdrew cash from the campaign account multiple times, which he testified Monday was for gas.
His wife, who also served as his campaign treasurer, told the jury Monday she hadn’t reported those expenditures on Kelly’s campaign finance report because she had never been aware of the withdrawals.
Michael Kaizar, a forensic accountant for the BCI investigation, looked into both Kelly’s personal and campaign bank accounts, which revealed that Kelly lived well beyond his means, he told the jury.
Kelly’s wife testified Monday that she was not a “fancy girl,” and that her husband would never intentionally misuse county money.
In his testimony Monday, Kelly echoed that statement. He told the jury he had always dreamed of being sheriff — that it was his “heartbeat.” He added he would wear a plastic badge as a boy, and declare, “I’m the sheriff! I’m the sheriff!” to his siblings.
During Wood’s closing argument Tuesday, he asked the jury to consider that Kelly wouldn’t jeopardize his time in office for a “few meals.”
"Would he risk his job, his dream, his reputation?" he said. "Would he do that for a few meals?"
Kelly told the jury that upon taking office in 2009, he promptly turned his attention to busting the county’s continuing drug problem. He created the sheriff’s office Narcotics Enforcement Team, or NET, and hired two confidential informants of his own.
During a conversation with BCI investigators in August 2013, Kelly suggested the money missing from county funds had been used to pay for informants, whose identities he refused to give.
‘DRUG UNDER THE RUG’
A previous Post report from 2012 by then-Asst. Managing Editor Alex Stuckey, found Kelly did not report the number of cars his office had seized in 2009 during drug busts, even though sheriff’s office documents showed that six of the 43 vehicles seized from charged drug offenders in the past three years had been taken in 2009 cases.
Kelly told The Post in that report those 43 vehicles were “traded to local dealerships for six unmarked vehicles undercover deputies drive,” though he wasn’t able to provide documentation to show the trade.
That wasn’t the only money Kelly had been accused of pocketing.
Denise Blair, a senior manager for the state auditor’s office, testified her office found various receipts from restaurants and retailers during its annual audit of the sheriff’s office, including a receipt from Ponderosa Steakhouse labeled “chief meeting NET discussion,” which was later reimbursed through the sheriff’s cashbox.
Thursday, Kelly was determined guilty on count 23 — theft in office through using public money to pay for meals.
Kaizar testified Feb. 5 that Kelly bought eight meals through the sheriff’s Furtherance of Justice fund, and that seven had not been justified on the meal’s receipt.
When The Post asked for the 2010 trust fund documentation in 2012, Kelly said he would be unable to provide it, as it was never reported to the attorney general.
Kelly had previously told The Post, however, that 2010 brought $20,000 in cash to the fund, and 11 seized vehicles from drug investigations.
During the trial, Blackburn, who told the jury in his testimony that he “once considered Kelly a friend,” additionally testified that he had received tips alleging Kelly had been taking cash from the FOJ fund, the Law Enforcement Trust Fund and the sheriff’s Mandatory Drug Fund.
Blackburn said the sheriff’s FOJ fund is granted about $31,000 by the Athens County Commissioners yearly.
Kelly eventually moved to take the LETF out of the reach of the county auditor’s office. Thompson testified during the jury trial that she had continuously witnessed numerous problems with the account when it was in her control.
Kelly testified that any money made from scrap sales went back to the LETF, which contained money for confidential informants. Legally, the sheriff wasn’t obliged to reveal those informants, according to the Ohio Revised Code, though many deputies in his department kept records detailing when the informants were paid.
Kaizar told the jury in his testimony that Kelly generally paid his confidential informants much more than other offices might spend, allotting them $20 to $50 for any given case. Kaizar said Kelly’s informants received an average of $186.
James Heater, a detective with the sheriff’s office charged with investigating narcotics cases, testified that Kelly had used those confidential informants to bust several drug rings, though he relied on “buy busts,” which usually end up burning that informant.
He told the jury Kelly tended to embellish these busts on his personal Facebook page.
THE END OF AN ERA
In the gallery, Smith and Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson were among the dozens in attendance. Most in the courtroom at the time the verdict was read were journalists, both from the Athens area and from out of town who had been chronicling the trail — and the highs and lows of Kelly’s tenure — for years.
After the verdict was read Smith said the sheriff’s office has “never been about him” since it was put in his control.
“It’s about the safety and well-being of the citizens of Athens County.”