OREANA (MCT) — Three Whitmore Township trustees have faced calls to step down since the township’s road commissioner was arrested June 21 for an alleged theft of government funds.
The latest request for Becky Karakachos, Pat Jones and Danny Manning to resign came from cemetery trustee Marshall Conway, who publicly acknowledged the role he played in a long-standing arrangement that apparently led to Road Commissioner Michael Spent’s arrest.
Conway said during a township board meeting Monday evening that because of an emergency, he turned to a previous road commissioner more than 20 years ago to open and close a grave, and the practice had continued. He said the cemetery sexton would pay the road district in cash out of the check the sexton received from the funeral home.
Then, at some point after Spent became Whitmore Township’s road commissioner, the sexton told Conway that he could no longer clean up and reseed graves because he was paying income taxes on the full amount while giving half of it away to the road district.
“Whoa, we’ll stop that,” Conway remembers responding. “We’ll have the (funeral home’s) check made out to Whitmore Township cemeteries.”
Conway said he started cashing the $400 checks and paying the sexton and road district in cash — $200 each — and workers helping Spent would get $50 each.
“We did not realize we were doing anything wrong,” Conway said, “and I’m still not sure we were, other than Mike’s not supposed to accept money because he’s an elected official.”
Jack Lamont, one of about two dozen people in the audience, asked if township trustees could get the Macon County State’s Attorney’s Office to drop the case against the road commissioner, but Spent replied that things have gone too far for that.
Ed Culp, investigator for the state’s attorney’s office, said in the arrest affidavit that an investigation showed Spent had received $2,400 in cash from May 2009 through May 2012 “which was never deposited into the Cemetery Fund.” Spent’s arraignment is set for Aug. 14.
“I did not steal one thing from this township,” Spent said at Monday’s meeting. “I’d be a dang fool to risk my job over $50 to dig a grave. I’d have to be an imbecile to do it, and I’m not an imbecile.”
Spent said the matter was handled wrong, was never brought to the board or to him and that other than having authority over his budget, township trustees have “no business interfering with the road district.”
“I run the road district and plan to continue running the road district for a long time.”
Minutes from the May township board meeting reflect that Karakachos asked if it was illegal to use township equipment and keep the resulting payment for personal use. The minutes also state that Karakachos said she had been told Spent was using township equipment to dig graves and was getting paid.
The minutes indicate Spent said township equipment cannot be used on private property, that a township cemetery is not private property and that the road commissioner has always dug graves.
Township board meeting minutes are kept by Township Clerk Sharon Conway, who is Marshall Conway’s sister-in-law.
Karakachos, Jones and Manning did not respond to criticism and questions from the audience Monday, other than to say they had been advised by investigators not to discuss the case.
They stayed silent, even after former township Supervisor Ron Abel accused them of doing the bidding of a “disgruntled” former employee. Abel and Mark Daley later confirmed that Daley is the former employee in question.
Daley is pursuing a wrongful termination lawsuit against Whitmore Township and Spent for his dismissal as a road district employee in 2010 but said nothing during Monday’s meeting.
Several people in the audience joined Abel in expressing support for Spent, praising the quality of his work, applauding each other and criticizing the three trustees for hurting the township’s reputation.
Sheriff’s deputy Matt Jedlicka asked at one point for bickering between trustees and audience members to stop before he had to remove people from the township hall. “Things are getting a little out of hand here,” he said.