The state auditor has ordered a former county official to pay back thousands of dollars the office said was improperly used to print thousands of extra copies of a county newsletter.

But county officials contend the actions weren’t illegal and requested that the state auditor reconsider the finding.

According to a report released Aug. 29 by Ohio Auditor Keith Faber, the county distributes a quarterly newsletter, usually printing about 200 copies that are available at County Council meetings.

The report states 2,429 additional copies of the spring 2018 newsletter were printed “for the personal benefit of Michael Soyars,” who was appointed in March 2018 to fill council’s District 7 seat vacated by Tim Crawford, who had served on County Council since 1993.

Soyars, a Democrat, ran for the permanent seat expiring in 2020 in the November 2018 election but lost to Republican Bethany McKenney, who currently holds the seat.

A short article about Soyars appeared on the front of the four-page newsletter, along with his photo. It introduces Soyars as the new District 7 council representative and explains he will be the nominee to run for the permanent seat that November, along with sharing some of his background.

The cost to print and fold the additional newsletters totaled $2,328.80, according to the auditor’s report. The cost for the 200 copies typically printed was subtracted.

“The County should ensure copies are made for the promotion of public purpose and not for a private interest,” the report states.

The auditor issued a $2,328 finding for recovery against Soyars and said the county should establish policies prohibiting the use of office supplies, services or resources for personal benefit.

“I followed the procedures in requesting the additional newsletters for my residents and I believe the finding is a partisan political decision which wouldn't hold up in court,” Soyars, a former Barberton City Council member, said in an emailed statement.

The auditor also determined Summit County Council District 2 representative John Schmidt, who was County Council president at the time, will be jointly liable for $2,328. The report said Schmidt approved the printing of the newsletters.

Schmidt, a Democrat, called the situation “petty, partisan politics.”

County disagrees

A Sept. 3 letter to the state auditor’s office from Deborah Matz, the director of the county’s Department of Law and Risk Management, and John Galonski, chief of the civil division for the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, disagrees with the auditor’s report finding the expenditure illegal.

Matz and Galonski also requested the office reconsider the finding or request an opinion from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office on whether it’s illegal.

They said they believe the action isn’t illegal because the finding doesn’t cite a statute, administrative regulation, codified ordinance, case or other legal authority that would make the actions of Soyars or Schmidt illegal.

“For the action of a public official to be illegal, it must violate the law,” the letter states.

According to the letter, Soyars requested permission to get the extra copies from Schmidt, who approved the printing of the newsletters. The letter states Soyars requested more newsletters to distribute to residents of his district so they would be informed of council’s activities.

According to the letter, the council doesn’t have an established policy, rule or ordinance on the number of newsletters that can be printed, nor is there a limit set by the Ohio Revised Code or the Summit County codified ordinances.

The letter also cites past cases that have determined a public office can disseminate information about it, including through newsletters, and use public money to do so as long as it serves a valid public purpose.

The letter notes each member of the council is named in the publication, and any of them could have made the same request for extra newsletter copies, a request that would have been granted.

The letter also states the auditor’s office shouldn’t decide for Summit County what the appropriate number of newsletters would be.

“The matter is one of local determination to be made by local officials,” the letter states.

Printed ledgers

The situation arose after Summit County Council District 3 representative Gloria Rodgers said this spring she discovered “a large number of [council] ledgers” had been printed and used in literature drops against McKenney in Norton.

Rodgers, one of three Republicans on the 11-member council, said she went to the county’s fiscal office and administration before contacting the state auditor’s office, which referred her back to the local county internal audit department.

Lisa Skapura, director of the internal audit department, said she investigated the situation and obtained an opinion from the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, which found the article about Soyars in the newsletter wasn't written to endorse or offer a preference in an election.

Skapura, a certified fraud examiner, presented her findings to the five-member Summit County Audit Committee, made up of the county executive, county fiscal officer, county council president and two Summit County residents, one an attorney and the other a certified public accountant.

The committee chose not to pursue the case internally nor refer it for prosecution or to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

Rodgers said she was “very open with everybody,” and “none of this was done in secret.”

“Basically my thinking was this was up to the auditor to decide, and if there was something wrong, I didn't want to be complicit in it,” she said.

Contact Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, emills@thebeaconjournal.com and @EmilyMills818.