Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge said that contrary to what appears to be the implications of some other area media outlets and Internet rumors, he had nothing to do with the break-in last week at his office.
"This burglary, the timing couldn’t have been worse," said Hodge, who is up for re-election next year. "I assure you that it had nothing to do with the Corbin Times Tribune. What those people think doesn’t matter even the least to me."
Hodge made the comments Tuesday morning in reference to a headline Tuesday that states, "sheriff’s office broken into after open records request."
Hodge said some seem to be implying that either he or a member of his staff had something to do with the burglary of his office last week.
"That’s is what they are going at and that is pure politics," he said.
When asked directly about it, Hodge said that he had nothing to do with the break-in.
"I’m not going to rob from myself," he said. "At the end of the day, anything missing from here, I have to replace. Absolutely not, and everybody I have working for me is honest. I don’t believe they had anything to do with it.
"The only chance we have of making this thing clear is getting it solved quick, and that doesn’t look like it is going to happen."
Hodge said that he has no leads in the case, and has been from one end of the county to the other looking.
When Hodge’s office staff came to work last Monday, they discovered pry marks on the office door. Officers discovered that the office had been ransacked, and the perpetrator had broken into an evidence locker.
Kentucky State Police are investigating the case. While an inventory of missing items wasn’t complete at press time, sheriff’s officials say that guns and drugs appear to have been taken.
Chief Deputy Tim Shelley said Tuesday morning that he plans to compare lists on the firearms that should have been in the office at the time of the break-in with that of ATF agents, who took custody of the remaining firearms from his office last week and inventoried them.
Once the lists are compared to see what is missing, Shelley said he plans to turn it over to KSP Detective Billy Correll, who is investigating the case.
Shelley said that he hoped to have the list to Correll by Tuesday evening.
Correll did not return a phone call from the News Journal by press time Tuesday seeking comment on the case.
Hodge said that he isn’t sure what to do in terms of improving the security of evidence storage in his office following the burglary. The office has no evidence storage room, and none of his predecessors had one either.
"I don’t know what the answer to that is right now," Hodge said.
Another paper reportedly filed an open records request with Hodge’s office on Dec. 15 seeking proof that certain seized guns were either still in the department’s possession or had been properly disposed of.
Hodge said that he expected representatives of the other publication to come by his office on Thursday, Dec. 17, before the burglary for their response to the request since the request asked for proof of transfer or to visually inspect the guns.
"We were right here, and we never heard a word from them," Hodge said. "Then they showed up on Monday, the day of the burglary, saying, ‘We’re here.’ We don’t rearrange our schedule for the Corbin Times."
Hodge said that his office didn’t file a formal written response back to the other publication in regards to the open records request.
He said the request gave the office three days to file a response, and he expected them at his office on the third day.
"Thursday on the day they were supposed to have been here, they didn’t show. Nobody was here," Hodge said.
Had the other publication shown up that day, Hodge said that he planned to sit down with their representatives, explain that he couldn’t help them, and "send them on their way. I feel like anything they are down here doing is just politics."
Hodge said that he hasn’t found the firearms from the cases the other publication is asking about.
"Our evidence room is a mess," Hodge admits. "It has been a nightmare since we started keeping evidence in here. I don’t know where the guns are right now."
Hodge said that the guns may have been part of the firearms that were stolen, or that he may have issued them to deputies for use.
"We issue guns out all the time. We don’t sell them. We tell them (deputies) to hold on to them," Hodge said noting that he thinks the .45 caliber weapons were issued to officers.
"I can’t account for every gun that is in this office. I can’t," Hodge admits. "It has been eight years. Some of our forms are gone. I don’t know if they were taken in the burglary, we just lost them or I didn’t fill them out."
Hodge cited one instance of a gun that still appears on the departments list as confiscated but that he knows was already given back to its owner.
He said that the form showing that it was returned to the owner can’t be located.
Hodge said that he could have done a better job with the paperwork, but that neither he nor members of his staff took anything.
"I take the blame for all the paperwork. It comes back to me," he said. "I try to keep up with what’s important, but at some point this stuff just overwhelms you."
He said three shifts of officers can bring in weapons and leave them in the office. Second and third shift officers are usually in the office leaving the firearms when neither Hodge nor Chief Deputy Tim Shelley is present.
Shelley asks them to put the necessary forms on the weapons. Sometimes the officers do and sometimes they don’t. Hodge said he has been guilty of not filling out the paperwork himself.
Hunter education guns
Another story Tuesday also made issue of guns confiscated that were supposed to have been turned over to the Kentucky Youth Hunter Education program in Whitley County.
The story quotes Hodge as saying he turned over 21 guns to the program, but a program representative saying that the program received only four guns from the sheriff’s department.
Shelley noted that the department received a court order on Jan. 18, 2006, to turn 21 seized firearms over to the program.
"Everybody in this office thought there was a lot more guns donated than what Bill (Johnson) is telling us," Hodge said. "If there was a mistake made, I am going to say it was on my part and not his."
A photo appeared in the May 3, 2006, issue of the News Journal on page B-3 with a caption indicating Hodge was visiting the hunter education class.
The caption states "another donation of confiscated guns" to the program, but doesn’t indicate how many guns were donated at that time.
All or parts of five or six firearms are visible in the photo, and it appears each student in the photo is holding some type of long gun in the form of either a rifle or a shotgun.
Hodge further addressed some issues brought out in the audit of his 2005, 2006 and 2007 books by Kentucky State Auditor Crit Luallen.
In June, Luallen released an audit of Hodge’s office, which showed a nearly $125,000 deficit over the three year period.
"Our audits found serious problems of financial management and the recommendations should improve oversight of the office," Luallen said in a press release. "Additionally, our referral to the FBI will insure that law enforcement conducts any necessary follow-up."
McKiddy said that one reason the books may appear off is that the office credited any payment postmarked before Jan. 1 on the prior year, or payment made for the December amount.
Tax bill questions
The audit also reportedly found instances where millions of dollars in property tax bills received early payment discounts when they might not have been entitled to do so, and other instances where people paid more in taxes than they should have.
Hodge said that the reason his office discounted tax bills after the discount period expired is that there have been various problems with tax bills over the last several years.
"We turned nobody down if they had a halfway decent excuse," Hodge said.
In November 2004, as many as 4,000 Whitley County property owners received tax bills that they couldn’t read due to a printing problem. An estimated 21,772 tax bills were printed.
In January 2005, Hodge said more than 4,000 property tax bills were returned to his office because of insufficient addresses out of the nearly 6,300 remaining unpaid bills.
In November 2008, 1,120 tax bills were inadvertently mailed to the wrong address due to another printing problem. While the sheriff mails and collects tax bills, he doesn’t print them.
"If they came in, were up front, and would tell us what was going on, then rather than being just hateful and mean, we would try to help everybody," said McKiddy.
Hodge said that the audit also noted that his office was supposed fill out a form every time a waiver was given or a tax bill discount was given.
He said auditors told him it was the revenue’s cabinet’s responsibility to inform the office about the form, but that no one ever did before.
"Nobody in that office had ever seen that form before. They (state auditors) say it was the revenue cabinet’s responsibility to give it to us. The revenue cabinet says it was their responsibility. How would we know that?" Hodge said.
"We had never seen the form. We had never filled the form out before," said McKiddy, who works for Hodge and worked for his predecessor, Ancil Carter.
"Nobody had ever asked us to fill it out until the state auditor’s office came down," McKiddy said.
Hodge noted that when he took over as sheriff, he kept Carter’s office staff and bookkeepers but some of the staff has since changed.
"The people I have in here keeping the books have my full trust. I trust them with my life and they were certified by the state," Hodge said.
McKiddy said that since the office was made aware of the tax waiver form, office workers are now completing it whenever appropriate.
The office is now sending all requests for a waiver of penalties on tax bills to Frankfort though, and signs are posted on the office door indicating that.
McKiddy said that the audit for the 2008 books and part of the 2009 books will also reflect a failure to fill out the forms and other problems outlined in the 2005 2006 and 2007 audits.
She said that part of the problem is that the audit of the 2005, 2006, and 2007 books wasn’t completed and finalized until 2009.
"If we don’t know something is wrong then how are we supposed to know to correct it?" McKiddy asked. "Now that we have been informed we are not doing it right, we are trying to make the proper corrections."
His own penalties waived
Hodge admits that the waiver on the penalties for his own property tax bills was a mistake made by his office staff.
Hodge said that he wasn’t sure that he paid his property tax bills and asked his office staff to look it up for him and tell him any amount owed.
"They were just trying to do me a favor. I should have been on top of that. I never questioned any discount," Hodge said. "I was glad I got, don’t get me wrong. I should have paid pay the penalties. They treated me just like they did any other taxpayer in Whitley County, who got a discount if they asked for it. They were just trying to help their boss out. It won’t happen any more."