Former York Township fiscal officer guilty of theft in office

T-L Photo/ ROBERT A. DEFRANK Dawn Lee, former fiscal officer for both York Township and the York Water Authority, appears with attorney Meagan Kirchner Wednesday before Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra and pleads guilty to five felonies related to theft in office. She is ordered to make restitution of more than $100,000 prior to sentencing.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The former fiscal officer for both York Township and the York Water Authority entered pleas of guilty Wednesday to offenses related to theft in office.

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra ordered the restitution of more than $100,000 to the entities and set her sentence for April 15.

Dawn Lee, 48, of 110 Chestnut St., Powhatan Point, pleaded guilty to five felony charges. They were two counts of theft in office, one count of tampering with records, all of which were third-degree felonies, and two counts of failing to remit withholding taxes, which are fifth-degree felonies. The investigation had been ongoing for more than two years and Lee did not seek re-election for when her term ran out in 2018.

Vavra ordered a pre-sentence investigation and Eastern Ohio Correction Center assessment. Lee was taken into custody to await sentencing.

Stephanie Anderson, public integrity officer with the Ohio State Auditor’s office assigned to prosecute the case, commented.

“That’s the highest amount of a theft that a public official can get. You can’t get higher than an F-3. That … will then (adequately) cover all the theft from the township and the water authority,” Anderson said. She added that the failure to remit occurred when money was withheld from employees’ paychecks. “She didn’t remit it, as was required by state law.”

Anderson said in the original indictment she charged each year’s charge separately, but in the final agreement they were narrowed to one charge for each of the entities.

Lee had served as fiscal officer for York Township and the York Water Authority. She originally faced 27 felony charges and a maximum of 52 years in prison. Among the charges were 15 counts of theft in office; one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity; two counts of theft; seven counts of failure to remit income taxes or withholding taxes for the employees, township and water authority to the state; one count of tampering with records; and one count of failing to file her own personal income taxes.

The charges arose from accusations of misuse of township credit cards, overpayment of wages, miscellaneous reimbursements, failing to file income tax returns, and failure by Lee to remit income taxes she collected from the township and water authority employees.

“Our team at the Auditor’s Office uncovered this misuse of public funds and our team in the Attorney General’s office secured proper consequences for these actions,” Attorney General David Yost said in a press release. “Public thieves are going to get public consequences.”

According to the release, an audit of the York Township public funds and subsequent investigation into the potential misuse of those funds originated under Yost when he was Auditor of State. The findings of the investigation were referred to the Belmont County prosecutor who appointed a special assistant prosecuting attorney. The Special Prosecutions section of the Attorney General’s office acts, upon request, as lead prosecutors or assistant prosecutors in unique and complex cases.

The plea agreement includes a requirement that Lee pay restitution of $105,530.34 to York Township and $18,531.87 to York Water Authority. This restitution must be paid prior to Lee’s sentencing.

“I understand the basis of the plea is primarily designed to ensure that both victims remain whole,” Vavra said during sentencing.

Anderson added that Lee could be sentenced to up to 11 years.

“There is no recommended sentence. The defendant has agreed to pay back the entire amount of of restitution,” Anderson said. “She’s also forever barred from ever holding a public office or position of trust (in the State of Ohio) with her plea to theft in office, and I have reserved the right to make a sentencing case at the time of sentence.”

She said this means a failure to make restitution could mean additional charges.

“If she doesn’t, I can come back with all 27 charges again,” she said.

York Township Trustee and York Township Water Authority Board Member Curt Wisavari said they are happy to see the issue being resolved.

“We’re thankful that this is finally come to an end. It’s been a long, drawn-out process which has caused a lot of stress with the water board,” he said. “We’re glad to see the restitution will be made…That doesn’t cover all of our expenses that we had to go through to get everything back in order, but it sure helps.”

Lee’s husband, Ryan Reed Lee, 49, of 110 Chestnut St., Powhatan Point, is set to go to trial April 16. He is charged with engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, receiving stolen property, complicity to theft in office, failure to file tax returns, receiving stolen property and theft in office. He faces a maximum of 19 years in prison.

The state believes he accepted payments from the township for work not performed. Ryan Lee also allegedly was paid in excess of what is permitted for work as a meter reader/meter technician for the water authority.