LISBON - The Columbiana County Republican Party chairman says his "investigation" into the county treasurer's office investment controversy has uncovered several troubling aspects, including the possible loss of emails he was seeking due to a computer crash.
David Johnson issued a news release last Friday announcing his findings four weeks after he filed a public records request with Treasurer Linda Bolon seeking documentation related to the investment account in question and investment policy, as well as emails between Bolon and former county Treasurer Nick Barborak, who was elected state representative last year. Bolon and Barborak are Democrats.
The GOP chairman said he learned from the response to his records request that Barborak's "computer 'mysteriously' crashed just about the time that his term of office was to expire. So the records that I have requested relative to electronic communications between Barborak and WesBanco, and most especially the Youngstown office of the state auditor's office, are 'not available,'" he wrote.
WesBanco is the investment firm hired in 2010 by the county advisory board on Barborak's recommendation to invest $5 million in county funds. Bolon reported in March she inherited a bookkeeping problem involving the WesBanco investment account, resulting in the county's investment income being overstated by $118,779. During the course of trying to correct the problem, Bolon also discovered several investments were made illegally because they exceeded the maturation time limit allowed by law.
No losses resulted from any of the transactions, and Barborak has said he was unaware of the illegal investments.
Johnson said the email communications he was seeking are essential to determining "who knew what and when they knew it. I, frankly, do not buy these records somehow vanished in a computer crash and that they just cannot be retrieved."
Barborak said his computer crashed mid 2012, not toward the end of his term as Johnson claimed. Barborak said he contacted the IT person his office shares with the county auditor's office, but efforts to resurrect the computer were unsuccessful, at which point he was provided a new machine.
"(Johnson) is just trying to make an issue. He's trying to imply there was something criminal or nefarious, and that's not the case," he said. "I came into the office one day, and it didn't work."
Barborak doubts there were any emails to Bolon on the computer anyway. Barborak has said before that he first told Bolon about the investment-interest problem in late December, before leaving office to assume his new duties as state representative. He had also advised the state auditor's office of the problem in 2011.
Bolon said the IT worker, Wayne Wallace, told her the computer's hard drive was sent to a company by the name of Phoenix, but the firm was unable to retrieve the information. Neither she nor Wallace knows what became of the hard drive.
"Who knows?" Wallace said. "It may have been destroyed or misplaced. I know it didn't come back to me, but they supposedly don't have it at Phoenix either."
Bolon said her inability to full comply with Johnson's email request led her to ask the county prosecutor's office for guidance on how she should proceed on the hard drive issue.
Meanwhile, Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett has filed his own records request with Bolon and Barborak, seeking, among other things, any type of written or electronic correspondence between Barborak and Bolon and their staff.
Barborak said he will make available his 2013 text messages exchanged with Bolon, all of which address an upcoming adoption bill before the legislature (Bolon served as state representative from 2006-2010). Barborak questions whether he is legally required to do so, "but in the interest of transparency we're making them available," he said.
"They're obviously on a fishing expedition," Barborak said of Johnson and Bennett's blanket records request.
While Johnson is not suggesting Barborak stole any money, he said "it is clear, however, that the former county treasurer was grossly negligent, perhaps even purposefully evasive in the manner in which he handled or mishandled millions of county taxpayer dollars."
Barborak dismissed Johnson's actions as politically motivated. "Dave Johnson has a history of calling for investigations into anything you can think of. His loyalty is to the Republican Party and to win elections, and that tells you everything you need to know about this," he said.
Johnson also had some harsh things to say about the state auditor's office failing to require something be done about the interest income problem. He said after being alerted about the problem, state examiners "failed" to do their job by "permitting thousands of dollars in overstated income to go unaccounted for not just one year, but repeatedly for the past three years. Their suggestion that these annual 'imbalances' in a $5 million investment account were 'not material' is, frankly, unbelievable. Was their relationship with Nick Barborak a bit cozy? We will probably never know."
Current Ohio Auditor David Yost, who is a Republican, took office in 2011. The state is taking a look at the investment issue as part of its current routine audit of the county books for 2012, the results of which are expected to be released sometime this year.
Johnson said when the 2012 state audit is released, he expects Barborak to be cited in some manner. "Had such findings been revealed in a timely manner, he would not have been able to get by with the claims he made as a candidate for state representative of 'safeguarding' the people's money and such. What hogwash."
He urged the county investment advisory board to seek retrieval of these records from the computer's hard drive or ask the state auditor's office to provide any correspondence it may have. It was the advisory board, acting on Barborak's recommendation, that authorized him to pursue contracting with WesBanco Trust and Investment Services in 2010 to invest $5 million in county funds.