- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 21, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Officials at a southern Ohio halfway house illegally spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on alcohol, hotels, travel costs for family members and a strip club, and forged receipts for personal and unauthorized purchases, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

The report from Auditor David Yost found $20,000 in illegal spending by employees at STAR Community Justice Center in Scioto County, with about half involving conferences in Las Vegas; Reno, Nevada; Orlando, Florida; and Pittsburgh.

The report said two center officials spent $170 at Columbus Solid Gold, a strip club, in December 2014.

The report cited former deputy director Josh Saunders with improperly spending $12,042 and executive director Charles Philabaun with improperly spending $5,965.

Saunders denies wrongdoing, said his attorney, Jonathan Marshall, who noted Saunders was the one who first alerted authorities to the allegations. Marshall also questioned why auditors never interviewed Saunders.

Messages were left for an attorney representing Philabaun.

The Scioto County Prosecutor’s Office is reviewing the audit to determine if criminal charges are warranted and whether money should be reimbursed, said Pat Apel, an assistant prosecutor.

The 150-bed facility works with felony offenders to help them reintegrate in the community and avoid going back to prison. The Ohio prisons agency is reviewing the audit, said spokeswoman JoEllen Smith. The facility is in Franklin Furnace, about 105 miles (169 kilometers) from Columbus.

In one case, the center spent $5,560 on plane tickets and registration for six employees to attend a conference in Reno, the audit said. During a stay in Columbus the night before the flight, employees spent $154 on 44 beers plus a $50 tip - both prohibited expenses - at a restaurant using a STAR credit card issued to Saunders, the report said.

The employees flew to Reno a day early and spent $797 on meals and lodging, with none of the six employees attending the entire conference but instead going only to sessions they felt were relevant, the report said.

“These employees used conferences as a cover for their self-indulgent vacations,” said Yost, a Republican.

The investigation found that over time, more than a dozen receipts were forged and submitted to the Scioto County auditor as documentation for expenses.

The center lacked a credit card policy, and employees would charge personal expenses to STAR credit cards, then reimburse the center for amounts they deemed unrelated to its operations, the audit said.

The center fired Saunders in April 2015, and he then sued Philabaun and STAR in July 2015 for unlawful termination.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins


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