Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Ex-auditor's trial opens in Lebanon




By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — Three top city officials' decisions to take early retirement buyouts prompted other employees to line up for the benefit, lawyers on both sides said at Monday's opening of the trial for former City Auditor Debbie Biggs.

        City Council quickly realized a “Pandora's box” had been opened, defense attorney Bill Gallagher said, and council denied knowingly approving Mrs. Biggs' buyout in late 1999.

        Then-Mayor James Mills and then-Councilman Mark Flick did know about her buyout, Mr. Gallagher asserted Monday. Current and former council members are scheduled to testify today in the Warren County Common Pleas Court trial.

        Mrs. Biggs, 53, of Oregonia, is fighting felony charges of theft in office and unlawful interest in a public contract in connection with the buyouts meant for city electric department employees. She could face up to five years in prison if convicted.

        Visiting Judge George Elliott, who will decide the case, found retired City Attorney Bill Duning not guilty of identical charges in December.

        Mr. Duning received a $206,000 buyout at the same time Mrs. Biggs got a $110,000 buyout and retired Electric Director Bob Newton received a $170,000 buyout. The program gave participants credit for an extra five years' service, increasing their retirement benefits and in some cases

        allowing them to retire earlier than they otherwise could have.

        Mr. Newton and former City Manager James Patrick have been charged with aiding and abetting Mrs. Biggs and Mr. Duning; their trials have not been scheduled.

        Mrs. Biggs' case is different than Mr. Duning's in that she was involved in processing the buyouts, including her own.

        “Biggs, as the city auditor, was orchestrating and engineering all of this,” Special Prosecutor Patrick Hanley said in his opening argument.

        Even as she prepared to take a buyout, Mr. Hanley said, Mrs. Biggs told at least two other non-electric employees — a water department worker and a police dispatcher — that they were not eligible for the program.

        In 1998, she had told another water department employee — Jack Bayes — that he was not eligible, Mr. Bayes testified Monday.

        “The only thing she said about it was that it was for electric,” he said.

        Mrs. Biggs has contended that she is eligible because she did extensive work for the electric department.

       



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