Court ruling clarifies roles of Clinton County office holders

LAFAYETTE, Ind. –Clinton County Commissioners and Council won some of their points against Clinton County Sheriff Rich Kelly in a declaratory judgment in Tippecanoe Circuit Court.

Kelly, also won some of his points.

Kelly and his wife, whom he named prison warden, formed a limited liability company, in which he deposited $100,000 over the past two years for the operations of the Clinton County Jail Commissary.

The Journal & Courier emailed Kelly for comment on Wednesday afternoon. He did not respond in time for this post.

The court order released on Friday recognizes that Indiana sheriffs have broad authority over how they spend prison police station funds, which are generated by the sheriff’s office selling personal items to inmates.

“However, it is a giant leap to claim that he can legally distribute over $100,000.00 a year to himself and his wife through a private entity, without the approval of the county, as all of these funds are personal ‘expenses’ necessary for the operation of the stewardship,” Judge Sean Persin wrote in his court order.

“The sheriff’s powers are established by statute,” Persin wrote in his order. “The Court declares that the personnel expenses necessary for the operation of the Commissary include salaries or specific financial expenses necessary to obtain certain services.

“Benefits, by their very nature, are amounts in excess of expenses, and … (the sheriff) does not give authority to disburse profits without county oversight.

“The sheriff may disburse profits from the commissioner’s fund, but only as mutually agreed to with the county, which is consistent with previous sheriff’s practice.”

Persin ruled that Kelly, who took office in 2019, did not violate nepotism laws by hiring his wife as prison matron and then appointing her to head the prison commissioner, as required by law. from Indiana.

The county commissioners and council members have no authority over who he hires to run the prison commissioner.

County ordinances could prohibit employing a spouse, but the 2012 and 2017 Clinton County ordinances did not override state law that creates an exception for sheriff’s hiring spouses as jail matrons .

As for whether Kelly can hire his own legal counsel for the sheriff’s office, he can, Persin ruled in Kelly’s favor citing a state law that requires counsel to appropriate reasonable compensation. . But the contract and remuneration of the legal counsel who binds the county’s general funds must be approved by the county.

However, the sheriff may hire and pay attorneys from the commissioner’s funds if the attorney’s work relates to the commissioner’s funds and operations.

The sheriff, pursuant to a resolution of the county council, may also use the commissioner’s funds to pay for departmental legal counsel without the supervision of the council in connection with the use of professional advice.

The sheriff cannot use the commissioner’s funds to pay personal legal fees, Persin said.

“Since the beginning of the legal process more than 15 months ago, the county has had no other motive or objective than the protection of these public funds from abuse,” said a statement released Tuesday morning by the auditor. of Clinton County, Britt Ostler. “The Court’s decision is an important affirmation that no elected official has the legal authority to unilaterally appropriate funds, particularly for personal enrichment.

“The county hopes this decision will put an end to this litigation so that elected officials on both sides of the dispute can focus on the duties for which they were elected.”

Contact Ron Wilkins at rwilkins@jconline.com. Follow on Twitter: @RonWilkins2.