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Prosecutor wrongly took pay from fund

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GREENFIELD — Since 2011, the Hancock County prosecutor has collected more than $16,000 in salary from a fund officials say they didn’t realize could not legally be used to pay the officeholder’s wages.

It’s a problem Prosecutor Michael Griffin inherited from his predecessor, Dean Dobbins, who received county council approval in 2010 to take $5,000 annually from the prosecutor’s diversion fund to supplement his salary.

At the time, council members who unanimously approved the request didn’t realize the expenditure wasn’t legal.

The issue was brought to light by Brent Eaton, who is running against Griffin in the May primary.

Eaton said he uncovered the problem after reading a post on Griffin’s Facebook campaign page. Griffin was responding to a mailer Eaton had sent to voters, criticizing Griffin for accepting a supplemental salary of what Eaton assumed was taxpayer money.

“He said it wasn’t taxpayer money,” Eaton said. “My reaction was ‘well, then this needs to be looked into further.’ The only other place it could come from would have to be diversion.”

Griffin, who was contacted by council members Monday about the problem, said he was unaware of the law prohibiting use of the diversion fund for his salary.

“I absolutely would not have presented a budget that included an error,” he said. “We work hours upon hours every year going over the various funding sources and what their limitations are. Inevitably, a mistake is going to be made somewhere.”

The prosecutor’s supplemental salary isn’t new. The county has given the elected prosecutor an annual $5,000 bonus in addition to the state-paid salary for more than a decade, Hancock County Auditor Robin Lowder said.

Historically, the $5,000 came from the county’s general fund. But that changed in 2010 with Dobbins’ request, which applied to the 2011 budget.

Dobbins lost to Griffin in his bid for re-election in 2010. Eaton, who also was running that year, finished second in the three-way primary race.

Jim Shelby, council budget chairman, said the council asked all department heads that year to find ways to move expenditures out of the waning general fund. 

Dobbins, who retired after his election loss and has since moved out of state, looked to the diversion fund as an option, apparently not realizing Indiana law prohibits prosecutors from using diversion funds to pay their salaries.

Dobbins could not be reached for comment.

Diversion funds are generated by eligible offenders, usually those with no criminal history, who pay a fee to participate in a program that gives them the chance to avoid prosecution provided they meet certain court demands. Most commonly, the program is offered to first-time traffic offenders, but it can also apply to those facing minor criminal charges.

State law puts oversight of prosecution diversion programs in the hands of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, which developed a set of guidelines in 2005.

The guidelines allow for a prosecutor to use the money for “office funding needs” but specifies that the elected prosecutor “shall not receive any salary from diversion … funds.”

Minutes from the September 2010 budget hearing show that Dobbins asked the council to start taking the $5,000 from the diversion fund instead of the county general fund. The request was unanimously approved, records show.

“We happily accepted that,” Shelby recalled. “Because it was being presented by the prosecutor, we just assumed that it was legal, that he would know.”

Griffin said he received a call Monday from council President Bill Bolander about the problem, and he now plans to go before the council at its next meeting, on May 14, to address the issue.

“None of us knew the implications of this,” Griffin said. “Obviously, I won’t be signing any payroll vouchers for this … salary between now and the time when it’s fixed.”

Griffin said he’ll do whatever is recommended, even if that means reimbursing the $16,000-plus he has collected from the fund since he took office.

“From my point of view, I’m willing to do anything that is needed to reverse the mistake,” he said.

Eaton criticized Griffin’s reaction, saying the officeholder should take responsibility for his office’s budget, even if parts of it were put in place by his predecessor.

“It’s the prosecutor’s responsibility to know the law,” Eaton said. “That rule is in place to make sure that the prosecutor is not in a position to receive a financial incentive by seeing that cases are dismissed.”

Griffin characterized Eaton’s timing as a campaign stunt, noting that multiple officials in county government also overlooked the law.

“The only person who found it was someone who had nothing better to do,” Griffin said. “A person who is sincerely invested in the public interest would bring it to the attention of the county council or the auditor’s office to deal sincerely with the issue.”

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