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Criminal probe and state audit underway into Columbus Police Department

Multiple agencies examining records for possible ghost employment
Posted at 4:55 PM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-17 18:36:16-05

COLUMBUS — A new criminal investigation and state audit are underway into allegations of ghost employment within the Columbus Police Department.

WRTV Investigates has learned that even the top cops in the department are under investigation.

Residents concerned about public safety

Columbus, Indiana is a mid-sized city with about 50,000 residents.

Dave Jones is one of those residents, and he’s concerned about his family’s safety.

“We’ve had a lot of breaking and entering, drugs, theft on the streets,” said Jones. “Over the years, it’s gotten worse.”

Jones expects police to focus on crime and public safety.

“Crime is crime, right?” said Jones. “We look to our police department to step in and work to get these things rectified.”

Jones is concerned after we shared our findings of Columbus police officers’ moonlighting.

WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney: “Did you know your taxpayer money was being spent this way?”

Jones: “Absolutely not. It’s appalling really.”

We will explain our findings shortly, but first— the backstory.

The backstory: Officers Meister and May charged

On Feb. 21, a special prosecutor criminally charged Columbus Police Lt. Dan Meister and Sgt. Ronald May after an investigation by Indiana State Police found they worked overlapping shifts at the police department and also worked security at Columbus Regional Hospital on numerous occasions between 2015 and 2018.

Meister and May are charged with theft, official misconduct and ghost employment.

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“Ghost employment is basically stealing from the government," said Arthur Lopez, Indiana University Business Law and Ethics professor. “It’s where you go out there and you have a preexisting duty to do a job but during that time, you're doing something else, some other job— so you're basically stealing."

In October 2019, the Indiana State Board of Accountsreleased an audit in which they asked Meister and May to repay taxpayers $9,013.89.

Columbus Police Chief John Rohde, who took office in 2014, had this to say about theaudit in 2019:

“In all circumstances our officers are held to the highest of standards, and are expected to uphold and follow the law,” read Rohde’s 2019 statement on the audit. “We have held these officers accountable for their actions because it was not only the right thing to do, but also because it is extremely important that every member of our community continues to have confidence in the officers who serve them.”

But WRTV Investigates received tips that Rohde and other officers were also working other jobs that overlapped with their police work.

Chief Jon Rohde also worked two other jobs, records show

WRTV Investigates filed multiple records requests and found Rohde also worked security at Columbus Regional Hospital while he was police chief, often relieved by Lt. Dan Meister, one of the officers criminally charged.

WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney analyzed dozens of time records and counted at least 131 days between 2015 and 2018 in which Rohde’s work with the city appeared to overlap with his shift at Columbus Regional Hospital.

Police Administration hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m., according to the city’s website.

Time records from Columbus Regional Hospital show Rohde typically worked security from 3:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., one day a week.

While most police officers spend their days and nights going out on runs in the community, the role of a police chief is much more administrative in nature—plus it’s a salaried position, rather than hourly.

In addition to his work as the police chief and security guard at the hospital, Jon Rohde had a third job as well.

Rohde worked as a mediator for the Indiana Office of Court Services—as an attorney he helped resolve mortgage foreclosure cases between homeowners and banks.

Records show Rohde billed the Indiana Office of Court Services for hundreds of phone and in-person conferences.

WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney looked up every single court case number Rohde mediated, and found that all of the conferences took place during normal business hours, typically between 1 pm and 4:30 pm.

We counted 68 days between May 2014 and 2018, while Rohde was police chief, in which Rohde reported working a full day at the police department, but also worked for court services—sometimes for hours.

For example, on August 3, 2017, records show Rohde was in 10 different court hearings as a mediator from 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm.

That same day, records show he also claimed to be working a full day at the Columbus Police Department.

Rohde has declined WRTV Investigates’ requests for an interview to discuss his employment at the hospital and court services.

“It’s not right”: Taxpayer and former mayor react

Taxpayer Dave Jones is very concerned about WRTV Investigates’ findings.

“It’s appalling, really,” said Jones. “It’s not right. There’s no way he could have been giving 100% to any of his duties where he was at, especially not as the police chief when he should have been on the clock.”

Former Columbus mayor Kristen Brown appointed Jon Rohde, who became chief in May 2014.

“I had no idea he was doing this when he worked for me,” said Brown. “It kind of makes you wonder—when did he have time to be the police chief?”

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Brown said it’s important for the police chief to be at the police department during business hours to respond to questions and concerns from officers, citizens, the mayor and city council.

"They expect the police chief to be there Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Brown said. “That's his job."

Brown started looking into Rohde’s other employment more than a year ago.

“A friend of mine was going through a foreclosure and she said you'll never guess who my mediator was-- the police chief," Brown said.

Brown said Columbus police officers are not allowed to just shift their schedules around to accommodate another job.

She also points to city policy that says, “All officers shall report to duty on or before the scheduled time and shall not be absent without leave."

Records also reflect that while Rohde occasionally used paid time off, such as holiday or vacation, to accommodate his other jobs at the hospital and court services—most of the time he did not.

Records show once investigations into officers Meister and May began, Rohde started using more paid time off on the days he worked other jobs.

“At the end of the day, it’s their hard-earned money,” said Brown. “Taxpayers should care. It’s their money.”

Records show that as police chief, Rohde earned more than $80,000 a year and after he stepped down as chief last year, he earned $105,363 a year as a police captain, records show.

His extra work at the hospital and court services brought in an additional $100,000 over the span of six years, records show.

“He can’t be paid by the city while he’s working for someone else,” said Brown. “That’s ghost employment.”

He is a role model”: Business professor and former police officer weighs in

Lopez, also a former police officer, explained law enforcement is held to a higher standard.

“They are held to a higher standard and they deserve it because of the good work they do for us, but when they do things like this, it undermines the good work that they do,” said Lopez.

Lopez said while people who work in the private sector may be able to just shift their schedules around to accommodate secondary employment, it does not often work in government positions.

“The money is coming from the taxpayers and the taxpayers want to know that you’re doing what you’ve been asked to do,” said Lopez. “These are all public officials, and when it’s law enforcement or the fire department- people are looking to these people as heroes. They want to know why aren’t you working or why are you doing something else?”

Lopez said even the appearance of impropriety can cause the public to lose trust in its police department.

"He is a role model,” said Lopez. “Do we know if the rest of his force is saying ‘Well, the boss is doing it, why can't I do it?’ It becomes very much a slippery slope, where employees feel entitled.”

Brown also filed records requests, and said other officers did the same thing as Rohde and worked other jobs that overlapped with their police work.

“It doesn't appear to be isolated,” said Brown. “It appears to be pervasive."

Time records Brown obtained and provided to WRTV show two other police officers also worked security at Columbus Regional Hospital and had overlapping hours with their police shifts.

WRTV Investigates tried to get those same records, but the city told us it “does not have records responsive” to our request.

WRTV Investigates filed a complaint with the state’s Public Access Counselor, and in a December 4 response to the PAC, the city attorney said records requested by WRTV are now with the Indiana State Board of Accounts.

Multiple investigations into records and ghost employment are underway

WRTV Investigates has confirmed a criminal investigation is underway.

Indiana State Police is investigating allegations of ghost employment involving the Columbus Police Department, said ISP Master Trooper Matt Lawrence in an email to WRTV.

The Indiana State Board of Accounts is also conducting an audit of records and is aware of the allegations against Rohde.

“Our special investigation section is aware of the allegations and we are currently looking into them,” said SBOA State Examiner Paul Joyce in an August 20 email to WRTV.

Special prosecutors have also been appointed to look into this matter— Doug Brown and Chris Gaal.

No criminal charges have been filed to date.

Jon Rohde stepped down as police chief at the end of 2019 and is now a captain with the police department.

He was elected a Superior Court judge in Bartholomew County and will be sworn in on December 18 and take the bench in January.

Michael Richardson is now the police chief, and records show state auditors are also reviewing Richardson’s time records as well.

City declines to speak on camera about allegations

WRTV Investigates asked Chief Michael Richardson, Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Captain Jon Rohde for on camera interviews and they declined.

City attorney Alan Whitted sent us the following statement on November 5:

“Last Friday you sent requests for on-camera interviews to Mayor James Lienhoop, Police Chief Mike Richardson and Judge-elect Jonathan Rohde. They have asked me to respond on their behalf and all have declined your request for an on-camera interview.

We understand that you have questions regarding the timekeeping system in our police department and understand that it was a confusing system. The police department operates 24 hours a day and the officers from the newest patrol officer to the Chief of Police are required to be present at meetings, training, and emergencies that might arise outside of their regular working hours. Traditional work schedules aren’t always applicable and our goal is to respond to the needs of the community.

On January 1, 2019 we implemented a new digital timekeeping system with additional checks and balances. In an effort to be transparent, in 2018 we contacted the Indiana State Police to request investigations into timekeeping irregularities and have cooperated during the investigations conducted by ISP as well as the Indiana State Board of Accounts. We also continue to work with these agencies as they review our old time keeping system which should have been changed many years ago. However, since the cases involving two former CPD officers have yet to be adjudicated, we will not be making any additional statements or comments that could inadvertently affect the outcome of these cases.”

A push for changing city policy and procedure

Former mayor Kristen Brown agrees the police chief sometimes has to work outside of business hours for things like city council and neighborhood watch meetings, which take place in the evenings.

"Each of those times, he's earning paid time off,” said Brown.

But Brown points out Rohde often was not using paid time off when working for the hospital and court services.

"He's legally allowed to do that as long as he's taking paid time off from the city, which he clearly wasn't doing,” said Brown.

WRTV Investigates requested from the city any policies that allowed Rohde to “flex” his time, or move his schedule around to accommodate a second or third job— but the city has not yet provided any such record.

Brown and taxpayer Dave Jones say the city needs to make additional changes beyond its improvements to its timekeeping system.

"If you're going to have a job outside the city, that should be disclosed,” said Brown. “I think that would go a long way."

"Additional policies and procedures should be put in place,” said Jones. “It needs to be locked down. You need to be on the job."

Meister and May could likely plead guilty next week

Officers Daniel Meister and Ronald May are now retired from the Columbus Police Department and have not agreed to speak with WRTV.

They originally pleaded not guilty to the charges of theft, ghost employment and official misconduct, but they are scheduled for a change of plea hearing on December 23—which likely means they will plead guilty to at least one of the charges.

They have claimed they were allowed to flex their time on the days they worked for the hospital.

State auditors requested the officer repay taxpayers more than $9,000 for the city compensation they earned while they worked overlapping shifts at the hospital.

They have paid their balance in full— Meister paid $4,110.35 and May paid $4,903.54, according to the Indiana Attorney General’s office.

Meister paid the money prior to the attorney general having to file a civil lawsuit to recoup the money on behalf of taxpayers, and May paid his portion after the state filed suit.

Once the state received payment from May, the lawsuit was dismissed.

We have reached out to attorneys for Meister and May this month seeking a statement and have not yet heard back from them.