State wants $80,000 Blackwell paid to employees

Mark Niquette // Published April 11, 2008 in Columbus Dispatch
Despite former Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell's contention that he had state approval to give $80,000 in parting payments to employees, state auditors found no documentation or policy to support that, records show.

Auditor Mayor Taylor issued findings for recovery against 17 former employees who received the money, described as bonuses or severance. Blackwell and Dilip Mehta, his former chief financial officer, also were found to be liable.

Audit working papers requested by The Dispatch show that several former employees met with auditors in February to plead their case and later produced documents to show that workers in the office had received bonuses in the past.

Blackwell also has pointed out that other state officials gave much larger employee bonuses without being asked to repay them. He argued that he had the power to grant bonuses and that his program was approved by the state.

But an attorney general's opinion concluded that Blackwell lacked the authority to make the payments, and auditors said they found no records approving the program or to show that Blackwell had clear criteria for awarding the money.

“No documentation could be found that would allow us to verify if the employees who received bonuses provided anything in return for them, except for the past performance of their duties,” auditors concluded in one memo.

Blackwell has said C. Scott Johnson, the former director of the Department of Administrative Services, “signed off” on the payment program Blackwell used in the office.

In an e-mail exchange with The Dispatch, Johnson confirmed he told Blackwell's office that state severance programs had been done successfully in the past but stopped short of saying he gave his official blessing.

“Signed off may be a bit strong,” Johnson wrote when asked to respond to Blackwell's comments. “ I responded positively in 2005 when this was conceptual.” Johnson left the office in the fall of 2005.

It also has been suggested that the Department of Administrative Services approved the payments when it processed the paychecks, but the agency said it merely makes payments as directed by an office.

The state has bonus-program guidelines that call for state entities to seek approval of such payment plans from Administrative Services and the state's budget office.

No plans have been submitted by any elected official. Johnson said those officials are not required to follow policies developed for state agencies controlled by the governor but frequently consider them in developing their own policies.

Blackwell has vowed to challenge the finding against him if the employees and the state's bonding company refuse to pay.

The state has filed a claim with the bonding company. The attorney general's office also sent letters Monday to the employees demanding payment and will send a similar letter to Blackwell and Mehta soon, spokesman Ted Hart said.