CINCINNATI - Two former clerks of the Arlington Heights Mayor's Court were accused Tuesday of stealing $262,000 in speeding ticket fines that were paid in cash.
Donna Covert, 52, of Reading, and her daughter, Laura Jarvis, 32, also of Reading, were indicted by a Hamilton County Grand Jury for theft in office, tampering with records and unauthorized use of property.
"They claimed that neither knew the other was stealing, which is very hard to believe," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters.
The indictment alleges that the crimes occurred between July 2007 and February 2010. If convicted of all the charges, each woman faces a possible maximum prison term of 15 years.
"It was their personal cookie jar," said Deters of how he believes the women viewed village funds. "They were just taking the money whenever they wanted, for personal expenses, groceries, whatever. One had some medical bills she used it for."
The I-Team's Brendan Keefe was the first to report earlier in July that money was missing from the village and that the office of Ohio Auditor David Yost was investigating possible thefts.
A small stretch of I-75 runs through Arlington Heights, but for years it's been known as a notorious speed trap. Records indicate the village averages 20 times the number of tickets heard in Mayor's Court compared to the Ohio's average per capita. That produces a considerable amount of revenue for the village, but the indictment alleges the much of the money wasn't going toward operating expenses.
Deters said a common way money disappeared was when someone was found guilty and paid a fine of $100 and costs in cash.
"They make a notation in the book that the case was cost-remitted, which means the judge basically says, 'Get out of here. No fine,'" he said. "The cash goes right into their pocket."
Two former Arlington Heights police chiefs, Mark Groteke and Rob Lawson, told the I-Team they raised questions about possible missing money for years, but were rebuffed in their attempts to launch investigations. Lawson finally went to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) with his concerns and a probe was begun.
"They have a woeful system of checks and balances in Arlington Heights where nobody ever looked to see what was going on," said Deters. "If not for the police chief, this would have continued unabated forever."
Donna Covert worked for Arlington Heights from the early 1990s through 2010 in a variety of positions, including Clerk of Court, Payroll Clerk, mayor's secretary and in the Human Resources Division. Her duties included making bank deposits for the village and supervising her daughter. She resigned in 2010.
When reached at home on Tuesday, Covert declined to comment. Instead, she referred all questions to her attorney, Mike Allen, who said he's still getting up to speed on the case. However, he said his client maintains her innocence.
"She denies the allegations at this time," he said. "We're in the process now of learning about it, in the process of getting her turned in and getting the system started. I do know she's a good woman. I've gotten to know her a little bit over the past few weeks and she's very broken up about this."
Allen said when Covert does surrender to the sheriff's office, he'll ask for an OR (own recognizance) bond.
"This is an individual with no criminal record whatsoever," he said. "She's a lifelong resident of this area with a family here and strong contacts."
Deters said he would accept whatever a judge decides, since it's a non-violent crime.
Laura Jarvis was a court clerk from 1998 through 2009, when she resigned. Some of her duties included maintaining the village's traffic and criminal court records, accepting payment on cases, modifying/updating the citations in the law enforcement database and making bank deposits.
She couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.
Because of what has occurred, Deters said he believes the leaders of Arlington Heights should seriously consider dissolving the village and possibly merging with the city of Reading.
"This is a tiny, tiny, little village, which in my mind is simply a speed trap," he said. "Is the existence of this village simply to generate funds through speed traps to pay for their jobs? I think that's wrong."
"I think there's good people out there and I hope they realize that we've got a serious problem here," Deters continued. "There's not checks and balances to make sure that this money isn't just going out the back door, which it was doing constantly. Why are we in existence? What's our purpose? What's our mission? Traffic tickets? That's a pretty shallow mission."
When the allegations were brought to light, Ohio Auditor David Yost assigned members of his Special Investigation and Special Audit units for two years to support the indictments.
"I congratulate them and the staff in County Prosecutor Deters' office for protecting the public purse," he said in a written statement.