For now, City of Wapakoneta officials are keeping a lid on details involving an ongoing investigation into the City of Wapakoneta’s Utility Department and the alleged involvement of a former Utility Department employee.
Kyle Binkley approached Council in an open session about the topic earlier this month:
“In May, the organization I belonged to received a phone call from the Ohio Attorney General requesting copies of our utility bills for a certain time period. They informed us that somebody within the City had stolen money from the Utility Department, yet assured us, that nothing was stolen directly from us. Now I find that to be a false statement from the Attorney General since the money stolen was taken from the taxpayers of Wapakoneta and the members of the organization are taxpayers. I have held my tongue that the City would release information. But, as of yet, I have not heard a word from our city government with regard to this incident. However, I have heard a rumor that the amount stolen is in excess of $650,000? How does this happen? Is this true?” Binkley asked. ”How does this affect our utility bills, our taxes within the City? Worst case scenario: the City could have put out a statement that said this thing happened [and] the person was fired.”
“Rumors are rumors. It’s the worst kept secret in Wapakoneta,” Interim Wapakoneta Mayor Steve Henderson said during an open City Council session. He also stated at that time that the investigation has been underway for about a year, and that the employee is no longer there. Henderson also dispelled the rumor that the person was fired, saying that was untrue. The individual under investigation for an alleged crime had not been fired but did leave their job.
“We got a phone call out of the blue from the Ohio Attorney General. A statement should have been put out by the City that said, ‘Hey this thing happened [and] you’re potentially going to get a phone call.’ How many people are affected? We don’t know,” Binkley said in open council, demanding Council “put the information out there that says this thing happened.”
“Allegedly, and I mean allegedly [becasuse] we don’t know, and these guys definitely would not know,” Henderson said in open session.
“It’s not allegedly when the Ohio Attorney General calls us and tells us we’ve been stolen from. Who did it is allegedly,” Binkley replied.
Henderson later offered clarification.
“Like I said to Mr. Binkley in the open public forum, I cannot control what comes out. Public citizens have a right to speak at a public meeting,” Henderson said. “He was incorrect in stating that it was the Attorney General’s Office who called. I believe it was the Bureau of Criminal Investigation that called.”
In a follow-up conversation, Henderson expressed concern that some members of the community are under the impression Council is being too secretive about the issue, with the implication being that there may be some type of coverup going on. He was adamant about his and the Council’s position to maintain their silence at the request of investigators.
“It’s not keeping secrets . . . I just shake my head. . . We cannot comment publicly on an active criminal investigation,” Henderson said.
“Nothing has changed on my end,” Wapakoneta Police Chief Calvin Schneider said. “And for the record, nothing’s been swept under the rug. [About a year ago,] I was alerted to a discrepancy. I contacted the prosecutor’s office and I contacted BCI,” Schneider said. He said it wasn’t his investigation to confirm.
Schneider did confirm that, just as with any ongoing criminal investigation, there is a potential for information to leak that could sabotage the ability for investigators to collect data and other evidence. This could make it more difficult to create a solid case for prosecutors seeking a conviction, should charges later be filed.
When Schneider expressed concerns regarding citizens’ utility bills, why did he not consider the taxpayer dollars being spent on manpower hours, data collection and analysis of evidence over the course of the investigation?
There are additional risks when anyone talks about an ongoing investigation, especially for a public official or a newspaper to do so, like slander.
“Generally you don’t want to name anybody,” Schneider said. “Let’s say we name somebody and no charges are ever brought forward against that person. Now we have named someone publicly. That’s defamation of character. They could sue us for slander. Also, you don’t want to potentially jeopardize the jury pool,” Schneider said confirming that publication or broadcast about an investigation could affect the prosecution. “If you do, you’re telling potential jurors allegations and rumors, stuff that’s not been confirmed or substantiated.”
Under the American judicial system, there has to be a presumption of innocence and a jury made up of local peers who would have to weigh guilt or innocence. Reporting unsubstatiated rumors is not the right path forward, and Schneider asked for the public to be patient.
“Do you want it done quickly, or do you want it done correctly?” Schneider asked. He indicated that there is continued progress in gathering evidence even this week.