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Ogle County Sheriff has defenders, critics

Official says cash payment 'totally irresponsible'

Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn
Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn

OREGON – Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn has yet to answer questions about where he deposited money from the Oregon Park District.

In both 2012 and 2013, the Sheriff's Department received $5,000 checks from the district as part of a police services agreement.

The park district says the first check was deposited, but the county treasurer says he has no record of it. The second check was never cashed.

In a brief email today, Harn wrote, "The [first] check was cashed and the money was at the Sheriff's office. ... The second check was at the Sheriff's office."

Harn, who has come under question for his handling of the money, hasn't provided any documentation on the first check. Sauk Valley Media submitted a public records request for that information Monday. Under state law, Harn has until early next week to respond or seek an extension.

On March 28, Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn walked into the the Oregon Park District office and handed the staff $3,754.38 in cash. That was money he said was unspent from the park district's payments.

Today, he provided documents on how he arrived at that number, showing how he spent the money. The expenses included repairs and maintenance for a 2013 GMC Sierra pickup truck, the registration of a 2012 Dodge, auto parts, and a meal at a Rock Falls restaurant.

Treasurer John Coffman said he doesn't know where the sheriff got the $3,754 to pay the park district. Paying it in cash, he said, was "totally inappropriate."

The treasurer handles most funds in the county. One in which he doesn't is the Sheriff's Department's controversial, off-budget administrative tow fund, over which the sheriff had wide spending discretion until the County Board sharply limited it in February.

In February, the board decided to have the treasurer's office handle the tow fund, but Harn has yet to turn it over.

Sheriff 'in charge of his business'

On the County Board, Harn has his defenders. Member Lyle Hopkins of Polo said the sheriff "is in charge of his business and what he does." He accused the newspaper of "twisting" stories about Harn, although he declined to provide an example.

County Board Chairman Kim Gouker said today that he would get details about the $3,754 transaction, declining to comment further.

As part of a 2012 agreement, the park district agreed to pay the Sheriff's Department $5,000 a year for "reactive patrol support," training, administrative services, crime prevention presentations and dispatch services.

Erin Folk, the park district's executive director, said today that the Sheriff's Department fulfilled the terms of the contract.

On March 20, Sauk Valley Media filed a public records request with the Oregon Park District seeking records regarding its payments to the Sheriff's Department, which is how the newspaper found that the department never deposited the second $5,000 payment from last September.

A little more than a week later, the sheriff informed the park district that he would end the agreement, saying the annual $5,000 wasn't necessary for the department to provide services to the district. The next day, he returned the $3,754.

'The budget has to be accounted for'

County Board member John O'Brien of Rochelle said today that the County Board should never have given the sheriff so much power over the tow fund. He called it "totally irresponsible" for the sheriff to pay a large amount of money in cash.

"I don't agree with Mr. Hopkins that the sheriff has complete control. The budget has to be accounted for," O'Brien said.

He also expressed concern that Harn has yet to turn over the tow fund.

"What authority does the County Board have to force the sheriff to obey the board's wishes? What right does the board have to force the issue? A lawsuit? Or calling the attorney general's office?"

The board, O'Brien said, would need to answer those questions.

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