BELLBROOK — The Bellbrook school board held a special meeting Saturday night after the district’s Superintendent, two school board members, and two former school board members were accused of misusing government funds to promote an operating levy for the school district, according to Xenia Municipal Court records.
According to a notice from the district, the meeting was held to discuss “Public charges of alleged misconduct by a school employee and/or public officials.”
Superintendent Doug Cozad, 47, faces four counts of illegal transactions of public funds and four counts of dereliction of duty. The charges are first and second-degree misdemeanors, according to court records.
In Oct. 2019, the Greene County Sheriff’s Office opened an incident report after “John Stafford came into the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, along with his attorney Derek Clinger wanting to make a report regarding the misuse of public funding to further a political agenda,” according to the incident report obtained by WHIO Friday.
The incident report said, “there is an allegation that public money is being sent to a company based in Washington D.C. called Allerton Hill.”
According to the allegations in the report, the company was being used to consult the Sugarcreek-Bellbrook school district on how to pass the next levy.
The Greene County Sheriff’s Office said the incident report has been closed and it was referred to another agency for follow-up, however, that agency was not disclosed.
The charges against Cozad and Bellbrook School Board President David Carpenter, board member Virginia Slouffman, and former school board members Elizabeth Betz and Kathy Kingston were filed in Xenia Municipal Court Thursday by Fraud Investigator John Uhl with the Auditor of State’s Special Investigations Unit.
After the May 7, 2019, operating levy failed to pass the district hired Allerton Hill Consulting and after the Ohio Auditor of State’s Special Investigations Unit investigated it was found “upon information and belief, Allerton Hill Consulting was hired to assist the School District in public communication and messaging for the purpose of reviving and passing another proposed operating levy,” the affidavit filed in Cozad’s case read.
“Cozad approved and authorized the payment of public funds totaling $37,500 to Allerton Hill Consulting,” the affidavit read.
Allegations included in the criminal affidavit for Cozad’s case also said the school district engaged in a phone survey that cost $15,000 that the auditor’s office found “upon information and belief” was “designed for the purpose of reviving and passing another proposed operating levy.”
“Cozad reviewed and approved the survey questions as well as the payment of public funds totaling $15,000 to Fallon Research and Communication Inc.,” the affidavit read.
Other allegations against Cozad involved a school newsletter.
“In or around March-April 2019, Douglas A. Cozad, the superintendent of Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools, authorized the mailing of a newsletter to the public from the School District,” court records read. “Public funds were used to pay for the newsletter which prominently stated (in part) ‘An investment in our schools is an investment in our community’ adjacent to an announcement that the operating levy was on the May 7, 2019, ballot.”
“Cozad was responsible for the language in the newsletter and authorized the payment of government funds for its printing and mailing,” a criminal affidavit read.
Carpenter, Slouffman, Betz, and Kingston each are facing single counts of illegal transactions of public funds and dereliction of duty, online court records show.
The charges accuse Cozad, Betz, Carpenter, Kingston, and Slouffman of authorizing the payment of public funds for a mailer that “included a picture of the Board with the title ‘Continue the Excellence with the passage of Issue 4!’” The mailer also included another postcard titled “Issue #4 Important!” and ended stating “Remember to Vote on May 7th! Polls open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Paid for by Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School, according to the affidavit.
The total for both the postcard and mailer totaled $5,214.37, according to court records.
“I have no reason to believe or suspect that there is any truth to these allegations,” Carpenter told News Center 7 Thursday afternoon.
Carpenter said he intends to stay on the school board at this time and added that Cozad was still working for the district.
News Center 7 obtained the following statement from Cozad’s attorney:
“Doug Cozad is a decent and law-abiding educator who is deeply concerned about these unfounded allegations. He fully intends to vigorously defend the claims against him. Doug remains dedicated to complying with the laws and guidance for school districts, and he has always strived to be ethical in his decision-making about how public dollars are spent. Neither Dr. Cozad nor any of the other board members are accused of theft or other misconduct. This is strictly a regulatory matter.
The abrupt and unexpected action by the State Auditor to file criminal charges in a case of this nature is more than unusual. To our knowledge, it has never happened before. Laws governing the use of district funds for information and advocacy are ambiguous and occasionally create situations where school districts must take corrective measures to remedy administrative errors. These matters are invariably addressed through the administrative recovery of funds and not through the criminal prosecution of good public servants.”
The Xenia Municipal Court records obtained by News Center 7 are the only public records that are releasable from the investigation by the Ohio Auditor’s Office, according to a spokeswoman.
“This case is an active criminal prosecution and additional documents that are part of this investigation and prosecution constitute confidential law enforcement investigatory records,” said Allison Dumski, Press Secretary for Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber. “It is our policy not to discuss ongoing work until it is completed and released by our office.”
News Center 7 has requested public records from Bellbrook Sugarcreek Schools, including copies of the newsletter, postcard, and mailer mentioned in charging documents filed in court.
Tabitha Justice, civil and legal attorney for Bellbrook Sugarcreek Local Schools, said she’s not able to tell News Center 7 attorney client communications, but did say “we do not usually get called to review school newsletters and similar communications.”
Justice also said the “firm represents the Board of Education on general school board legal and civil liability matters.”
“We do not do criminal work in our firm and will not be handling the Xenia Municipal Court matter,” Justice said.
Following the special board meeting, the school board made the following statement in a press release saying:
“Our district takes seriously its responsibility to be good stewards of public funds and to comply with all relevant laws and guidance regarding levy campaigns.”
The statement continued saying “As a quorum of board members we have full confidence in the ability of Superintendent Doug Cozad to lead our district. Additionally, David Carpenter and Virginia Slouffman will continue in their roles on the board. However, they will be recused from discussion and voting on these legal matters.”
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