I-Team: Arlington Heights was warned by auditors nearly 15 years before theft indictments

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ohio - A mother and daughter are now awaiting trial for allegedly stealing $262,000 from traffic fines in the tiny village of Arlington Heights.

Donna Covert and Laura Jarvis, both former clerks in the Arlington Heights mayor's court, were indicted by a Hamilton County grand jury after the I-Team first revealed audit results showing money missing from their office.

The special audit has not yet been released by Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, pending the outcome of the criminal case. Sources tell us the case is likely to end in a plea deal for both women.

"It's pretty obvious they treated this thing as their own little cookie jar," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters.

Deters said the mother and daughter, "took money whenever they needed it, and nobody was there to stop it."

But the I-Team has discovered multiple audits where the accounting practices of the village and its mayor's court were called into question by state investigators, amounting to advance warning that such a theft could easily occur.

A 1996-1997 audit showed, "a lack of segregation of duties in the Mayor's court receipt procedures." Auditors noted the clerk of court, Donna Covert, was, "responsible for the collecting, depositing, posting and reconciling" of traffic fines. The official state audit released in 1998 recommended separation of those duties with the fiscal officer and mayor reviewing the books.

Nearly 15 years later, Covert and her daughter stand accused of pocketing more than $250,000 from that same account.  

"In the face of state auditors saying you don't have safeguards in place," said Deters, "they basically ignored them anyway."

The prosecutor added the village's failure to act, "permitted an environment where these two women were able to steal a lot of money -- probably a lot more money than what they've been indicted for -- but at $262,000 they've met every thresh-hold we can have for the highest felony for theft."

As we first reported in our initial investigation, two former chiefs of police in Arlington Heights had warned their bosses that money was missing as far back as a decade ago. Mark Groteke, a former police chief for the village, went so far as to put his suspicions in a letter to the mayor in 2002 , when he also called for an outside audit of all tickets written. No such audit was ordered until last year.

The prosecutor was shocked when we first showed him the letter.

"I mean this is the highest law enforcement officer in the village, he's saying something's wrong, and nothing's done about it? I mean that pretty much stinks," Deters said.

Before our investigation , Arlington Heights wrote nearly 20 times the number of tickets per-capita as the average Ohio municipality. The village of fewer than 900 residents had more than a dozen officers patrolling less than a mile of I-75, writing tickets that provided between one third and half of the government's operating budget.

Once we broke the story, the Arlington Heights Police Department suspended its traffic enforcement program on I-75.

In June, before our investigation first aired, officers issued 423 traffic citations. That number dropped to 222 in July. In August, officers wrote just 59 citations.

The police chief confirms the traffic enforcement program is gone, probably for good.

Arlington Heights officials don't have to look very far to see other examples of theft in the area. Two neighboring villages have seen thousands disappear from their mayors' courts over the last five years.

State auditors discovered $14,823 in fines were never deposited in Lincoln Heights a few years ago. A "finding for recovery" was issued against a court clerk who was fired as part of the investigation. She was never charged with a crime.

In Lockland, a village that shares borders with both Lincoln Heights and Arlington Heights along I-75, a mayor's court clerk was convicted of theft in office . Auditors determined Dana Mynatt had pocketed $128,016 in cash from traffic tickets before she was caught and sent to prison in 2008. Mynatt recently refused our request to interview her behind bars.

All the warning signs were there before a routine audit discovered money missing in Arlington Heights last year.

The I-Team started investigating allegations of theft by village officials in May of this year. Internal e-mails show the current police chief, Ken Harper, warned his superiors that we were getting close to finding out about the alleged thefts, and who might be responsible.

"Channel 9's investigative reporter Brendan Keefe was outside the town hall," Chief Harper wrote in an e-mail to the mayor, fiscal officer, and law director of the village minutes after we started recording video outside.

Chief Harper added , "sounds like this Laura and Donna stuff is about to be a problem very soon," referring to the two former clerks later indicted for theft in office.

Four minutes after the email to his superiors, Chief Harper sent a second email to all Arlington Heights police officers, warning them that,

"there is getting ready to be a media frenzy here in the village."

Those emails were among documents we received from the village after a protracted battle for public records. 9 News also obtained an emergency ordinance the village council passed in a special meeting called after the I-Team started asking questions about missing money.

The ordinance, "A Resolution Restricting The Use of Video Cameras During Council Meetings," was passed by unanimous vote of the council in June. It required the news media to file a request to record public meetings at least seven days in advance.

9 News notified the law director of Arlington Heights that such restrictions violate the Ohio Open Meetings Act.

"After the law director reviewed it, he said this isn't right, we can't do it, so we said OK, we'll repeal it," Arlington Heights Mayor Steve Surber said.

The ordinance was repealed by unanimous vote in July.

Prosecutor Joe Deters said the measure of an institution is not whether employees steal money, but what officials do about it.

"If your reaction is throw the reporters out, throw the cameras out, don't let anybody talk -- that's not the reaction you would want from a public official. You would want, 'hey, OK, we had a problem, here are the following things we're going to do to fix it,'" Deters said.

In its latest council meeting this week, the Arlington Heights village council approved a new public records policy . All village employees have been put on notice that e-mails from their private accounts are also subject to disclosure if, like the police chief, they use their personal e-mail to conduct public business.

The council also approved a top-to-bottom outside audit of the police department at Chief Harper's request.

Watch Brendan's I-Team report with exclusive new information Thursday night on 9 News at 11.

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