Report on misconduct claim released

The investigation that resulted in the former chairman of the Fayette County Board being cleared of official misconduct allegations included interviews of about 20 people.
The investigation into County Clerk and Recorder Vicky Conder’s claim of being intimidated by Steve Knebel included interviews with most of the county board members and several county officers.
Conder claimed that Knebel threatened to cut her office’s budget if she did not hire an individual he was recommending for a position in her office.
At the conclusion of that investigation, a report into the claim of official misconduct was filed with the office of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor.
Matt Goetten, a special prosecutor with that office, gave written notification that, “Our agency will not be filing charges at this time based on the available evidence.
“My determination in this matter is subject to futher review upon receipt of additional evidence. As we have discussed, however, I believe the investigation was thorough, and as such, I doubt further review would be necessary.”
That investigation came to light at last Tuesday’s county board meeting, as Knebel resigned from his seat after explaining that he had been cleared of any charges.
In doing so, Knebel said he was “not pleased that some of those that did not get my support for budget expenditures thought that having me investigated was the right answer.”
Knebel said that he “encouraged” Conder to hire that individual, adding that her decision not to do so was not the reason the board voted to fill only one of two vacancies in her office.
One of those interviewed as part of the investigation, Terri Braun, who preceded Conder as county clerk, said that she was told prior to leaving office in December that one staff position would be cut.
The report on that investigation was obtained by The Leader-Union through a Freedom of Information request filed with State’s Attorney Joshua Morrison.
That report states that the investigation was initiated after “a confrontation between Chairman Knebel and Conder” prior to the county board meeting on Nov. 13 of last year, according to a statement by Morrison to special investigator Robert McCall of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
In his report, McCall explains that Morrison had filed with the Attorney General’s office last November a request for an investigation into Conder’s claims of intimidation.
He said that the AG’s office waited until April to deny Morrison’s request, and that the state’s attorney then contacted the director of the Appellate Prosecutor’s Office, whom Morrison said “was interested in the complaint,” but didn’t have investigators available.
At that point, Morrison contacted Shelby County Sheriff Don Koonce, who agreed to have his undersheriff, McCall, conduct the investigation.
Morrison told McCall that “on at least two separate occasions, (Knebel) attempted to persuade him” to promote a part-time employee in his office to full-time and said that Knebel and his wife “are very good friends” with that employee and her husband.
Morrison also told McCall that Sheriff Chris Smith had told him that Knebel had also asked him about hiring that employee full-time in his office.
Supervisor of Assessments Cindi Lotz told McCall that Knebel “mentioned that he would like to see” that employee get a full-time position in the county, “but never directly requested” that she hire that person.
Morrison told McCall that after the county board meeting on Nov. 13, Conder told him that Knebel called her into a private meeting, at which time he “raised his voice and pointed his finger at (her) in a threatening manner” in telling her that she was going to hire the person he recommended.
Conder told Morrison that after that meeting, Knebel told her she would be able to fill only one of two vacancies in her office and that she was the reason the county budget was being held up.
In their interviews, several county board members gave McCall differing interpretations on why the budget was held up.
Smith told McCall that Conder had called him after the Nov. 13 board meeting and that she “was crying and very upset” about her interaction with Knebel.
Conder told McCall that during their private meeting, Knebel “told her” that his recommended candidate was going to be hired full-time in her office.
She said that when she told him that she was hiring someone else, he said she “was making a big mistake.”
Conder told McCall that he had raised his voice to the extent that another board member “opened the door and asked if everything was OK.”
Conder said that she interviewed Knebel’s recommended candidate but chose to hire someone else.
The person she hired resigned in April, and Conder again filled that vacancy with someone else, she told McCall, Knebel “refused to come to the office … to provide his signature on county documents.”
The county board members interviewed included John Daniels Jr., who told McCall that he “believed (the budget) contained reductions in all departments,” and said “it was his belief the county’s unofficial policy over the last couple of years was to cut the budget through employee attrition.”
Board member Jacob Harris told McCall he had no knowledge of Knebel trying to get Conder to hire a certain individual, but “his observations (are that Knebel) is hostile” toward her.
Board member Darrell Schaal told McCall that he was asked by Knebel to enter a room with him and Conder to talk about her budget prior to the November board meeting.
He said that when he entered, he “could tell … Vicky was upset.”
He said that he remembered Knebel only telling Conder that she could fill only one of two vacancies. “There was no conversation to his memory about who that person shold be,” McCall states in his report.
Schaal also told McCall that “cuts to the budget were made across the board in all departments.
McCall also interviewed the employee whom Knebel was allegedly recommending for a full-time position in the clerk’s office.
He said that she and her husband are “personal friends” with Knebel and his wife.
She told McCall that she had asked Knebel to talk to Morrison about putting her in a full-time position that had opened up due to a retirement.
When Morrison did not do that, she told McCall, Knebel told her to apply for a position in the county clerk’s office, and said he would talk to Conder about hiring her.
That employee told McCall that she “does not believe that Steve is mad about her not getting hired, and even though they socialize outside the courthouse, they do not discuss county business.”
McCall contacted Knebel, who said he wished to talk to his attorney before making any statements. His attorney later spoke with McCall, telling him that Knebel had told him that “he in no way threatened Ms. Conder to hire” his recommended person.
His attorney also told McCall that Knebel said that her decision to hire someone else “was not reflected in her budget.”
The final interview listed in McCall’s report was the one with Terri Braun, who preceded Conder as the county clerk and recorder.
Braun told McCall that even though she was leaving office at the end of November, she was involved in discussions about the budget for the coming fiscal year.
Braun said that she was informed by Knebel and the budget committee that if her deputy clerk was elected to county clerk, she would not be able to replace herself in the office.
Further, she said, if the deputy clerk lost, which was the case, “the new clerk would also not be allowed to replace Kelli.”
Braun told McCall that she believed that cutting even one employee “would adversely affect the operation of the office,” so she argued against the cut.
She also told McCall that she kept that position, along with another vacancy created when another employee left, in her budget, with hopes that the county board would pass the budget with the positions in there.
Asked about the investigation being investigated, Morrison said, “Any time that there is (potentially) a crime involving a Fayette County official and there might be a conflict (of interest), if there’s a chance of that, there clearly needs to be a separation (from my office).
“It needed to be investigated because there was an allegation made,” he said.
“When it (Conder’s claim) was reported to me, I immediately tried to get an outside agency involved,” Morrison said.
A five-month delay in the start of the investigation, he said, was due to “waiting on who was going to take the case.”
The attorney general’s office, Morrison said, declined to take the case without reviewing what his office had submitted. “They had no idea of the merits of the case.”
He turned to the Appellate Prosecutor’s Office, Morrison said, “because there was still a duty to investigate it.”
Morrison said that since the investigation came to light, he has been asked how much it has cost the county. His answer – “Absolutely nothing.”
He said that the Shelby County sheriff agreed to have his undersheriff conduct the investigation as if he were working in, and being paid by, that county.
About the facts in the case, Morrison said he believes that Knebel acted improperly.
“I don’t believe that he has the right to recommend anyone for a position,” Morrison said. “It’s not proper.”
 

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