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Sunday, January 13,2013

Village reacts to theft case against ex-mayor

Photo Credits: Jim Phillips/Athens NEWS
Photo Caption: Jacksonville residents Lawrence and Elizabeth Skinner say they still support former Mayor George Pallo.

The Athens County Prosecutor said Friday that George Pallo, the former mayor of Jacksonville who's facing felony theft charges, apparently didn't start out stealing money from the village for his personal use.

Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said he believes Pallo, 56, initially was just mishandling money from a charitable fund set up to help fund fire protection in the Trimble Township village of Jacksonville, but that he was using the money to cover village expenses, albeit not in the proper way.

As time went on and Pallo began to face his own financial problems, however, Blackburn alleged, he began diverting public moneys to his personal expenses, perhaps believing he could eventually pay the stolen money back.

"I think he may have started by (just) screwing up (the bookkeeping)," Blackburn said. "Then he fell on some hard times himself." He alleged that Pallo may have used some public money to pay mortgage bills on his home.

Last week, Pallo submitted his resignation to the village, citing personal and health reasons. On Thursday, however, Blackburn's office announced that Pallo has been charged with two counts each of theft in office and grand theft, which are both fourth-degree felonies.

After an investigation initiated by the Ohio Department of Public Safety's Ohio Investigative Unit, Pallo was accused of having taken money from a non-profit fund set up to help pay for fire protection, and diverting it to personal use. The total amount of his theft is alleged to be more than $19,000.

PEOPLE IN JACKSONVILLE SEEMED reluctant to talk about Pallo's case Saturday. Of the handful of residents who commented to The Athens NEWS about it, most did not wish to have their names in print. Some expressed surprise at Pallo's being charged, and praised him as a man and a mayor.

"He's a good friend of ours, and I don't care what he's done; he's still my friend," said village resident Elizabeth Skinner. "His health is a big part of his reason for resigning (as mayor)."

"He's the best mayor we've ever had," added her husband, Lawrence Skinner. Both said Pallo has worked tirelessly on the behalf of the village during his 30-some years in office.

Elizabeth Skinner also has a letter to the editor in this issue.

One man from Jacksonville, however – who said he had already commented on the case to a Columbus TV news station – was more critical.

"What I told them was, 'If that was me, they'd have arrested me,'" said the man, who did not want his name used. "Why haven't they had him arrested?" (as in taken into custody).

The NEWS was unable to elicit comment from anyone at either the VFW post or the Eagles lodge in the village, both of which are alleged to have had charitable donations stolen by Pallo. A man at the VFW who described himself as an officer of the organization said he has been advised by an investigator on the case not to comment on it publicly.

Others in the village expressed a general fondness for Pallo, and regret at what's happened to him.

"George is a really nice guy," said one woman. "Everybody is just kind of shocked, I think."

"He's always helped people out," said another man. "I'm hoping (the charges are) not true, because he is a great guy."

Blackburn said that Pallo has cooperated with investigators, helping them track the money. He said Pallo apparently was trying to pay back money he had misused.

For example, he is alleged to have opened a credit card in the village's name and used it to buy a lawnmower for village use for around $5,000, while telling village officials that he had used money from the fire fund, which was given to the village as reimbursement for a gas explosion, to pay for the purchase.

He then allegedly wrote checks to "cash" out of the fire fund and used some of that money for his personal expenses, according to Blackburn. However, he said, Pallo was apparently trying to pay off the lawnmower purchase.

"He was robbing Peter to pay Paul," the prosecutor alleged.

He added that he, Blackburn, had expressed some concerns about the charitable-fund setup and the accountability for the money as early as last September, and believes the arrangement is less than ideal.

"That's part of the problem here," he suggested, noting that the non-profit fire fund was apparently not subject to state audit.

According to a release from Blackburn's office, Pallo is alleged to have misused money from the Jacksonville Fire Fund during 2011 and 2012.

The state Investigative Unit opened the investigation of Pallo because it involved alleged misuse of charitable donations from two liquor permit premises in Athens County, the VFW and Eagles aerie. The state agency then contacted the Athens County Prosecutor's Office and expanded the investigation into village funds, the release said. Pallo resigned effective last Tuesday.

He is scheduled for an initial appearance on a bill of information in Athens County Common Pleas Court this Friday, Jan. 18. A bill of information, rather than an indictment, is often a sign that a quick plea is in the works.

Erik Lockhart, Ohio Investigative Unit's agent in charge for Athens, is quoted in the prosecutor's release as saying, "This kind of activity is unfortunate; you have two locations that believed their charitable gaming proceeds were going to the village charities, when it was actually going to one individual for personal gain."

Blackburn stated in the release that "these accusations against George Pallo have tarnished his lifetime service to the village of Jacksonville and Athens County. Mr. Pallo has sacrificed many personal hours to aid the citizens in and around Jacksonville. It is disappointing that he has made decisions to personally benefit himself with the money given for public use."


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