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Ex-Columbus police chief dodges questions about ghost employment allegations

Judge-elect Jon Rohde took oath of office on Dec. 18
RohdeSwearingIn.PNG
Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-31 18:35:32-05

COLUMBUS — The former Columbus police chief dodged questions from WRTV about a criminal investigation and state audit underway into allegations of ghost employment with the police department.

On Dec. 18, Superior Court 2 Judge-elect Jon Rohde and other Bartholomew County officeholders took the oath of office and were sworn in by Circuit Court Judge Kelly Benjamin.

Rohde served as police chief from 2014 to the end of 2019.

WRTV Investigates has been trying to talk to Rohde about allegations of ghost employment involving him and other officers in the department, but he has not responded to our requests.

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A criminal investigation is underway by Indiana State Police into claims of ghost employment, special prosecutors have been appointed, and the Indiana State Board of Accounts has conducted an audit.

WRTV Investigates went to the courthouse on December 18 and waited until Rohde was finished being sworn in.

Kenney: Judge Rohde, are you taking any questions? Kara Kenney with WRTV—

Benjamin: We are still in the middle— we are about to swear someone else in.

Kenney: OK, thank you so much.

WRTV waited until the end of the swearing-in ceremony, but we did not get an opportunity to ask Rohde any questions.

So, WRTV went outside the courthouse and waited for Rohde to come out the front.

Instead, we saw the former police chief and judge-elect go out a side exit with sheriff’s deputies close by — including one in a vehicle with its red and blue lights flashing.

“Jon Rohde, we would like to ask you some questions,” said WRTV Investigates as Rohde started to pull out in his vehicle.

As Rohde drove away, a sheriff’s deputy followed behind him.

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Bartholomew County Superior Court 2 Judge-elect John Rohde dodged questions from WRTV Investigates after taking the oath of office on December 18, 2020.

On Dec. 23, two former Columbus Police Department officers, Daniel Meister and Ronald May, pleaded guilty to ghost employment after Indiana State Police found they worked security at Columbus Regional Hospital while on duty for the city.

"Ghost employment is basically stealing from the government," said Arthur Lopez, an 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."

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

WRTV Investigates 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 3:30-9:30 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, 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 looked up every single court case number Rohde mediated and found that all of the conferences took place during normal business hours, typically between 1-4:30 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 Aug. 3, 2017, records show Rohde was in 10 different court hearings as a mediator from 1:30-4:30 pm.

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

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

“I had no idea he was doing this when he worked for me,” Brown said. “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 the 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,” Brown said. “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,” Brown said. “That’s ghost employment.”

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 Aug. 20 email to WRTV.

Special prosecutors have also been appointed to look into this matter: Doug Brown of Decatur County and Chris Gaal of Monroe County.

No criminal charges have been filed to date.

Jon Rohde takes the bench as judge in January, but it’s not yet clear when his first hearing will be.

Former officers Meister and May received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty Dec. 23 to ghost employment, and repaid taxpayers $9,013.89.

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

Rohde, who took office in 2014, had this to say about the audit 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.”

WRTV Investigates asked Chief Michael Richardson, Mayor Jim Lienhoop and they declined.

City attorney Alan Whitted sent us the following statement on Nov. 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.”

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