Belork removed as Starke County Treasurer

KNOX — Starke County Treasurer Linda Belork was removed from office Thursday afternoon, Aug. 11 by a unanimous decision of Starke County Commissioners Dan Bridegroom, Kathy Norem and Jennifer Davis. This decision came during the second emergency meeting of the day, a joint session of commissioners and the Starke County Council.
Bridegroom, who holds the position of commissioner president, opened the meeting with a summary of events that had taken place earlier in the day.
“There are considerable irregularities in the 2009 accounts; we have gone to the bank to freeze the accounts, but everyone will get paid,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the question of a delay in payroll for the county was discussed as a possibility.
Other steps were taken to secure the office of the treasurer.
“We served the treasurer with a restraining order — she is no longer allowed in the treasurer’s office. We removed the deputies in there this morning. We have filed a lawsuit on her bond,” Bridegroom said.
Following Bridegroom’s summarization, Commissioner Kathy Norem made another explosive motion — her second of the day.
“I make the motion that we remove the treasurer from her office,” Norem said. Bridegroom and Commissioner Davis agreed with two ayes.
During the first public meeting of the commissioners, Norem motioned that all employees in the treasurer’s office be terminated. Again, the motion was agreed upon by Bridegroom and Davis.
The commissioners also asked for a restraining order against Belork to secure the office. Once the decisions to obtain a restraining order and sue the treasurer’s bond were made, the necessary steps required to remove Belork had been taken.
An executive order of the commissioners is sufficient to remove an elected official from office. The commissioners cited Indiana Code 36-2-10-3: “The county executive may remove the treasurer from office if he is delinquent and has been sued on his official bond.”
One of the irregularities in the 2009 audit report is a delinquency of $636,618. While one quote in the amount of $890,000 was tossed out as delinquent, nowhere is that figure listed in the 2009 report, which was the basis for Thursday’s decisions. An amount, possibly in excess of 900,000 is listed in the suit against Belork's bond and the affidavit of Starke County Auditor Katherine Chaffins. The 2010 report, which should post in the next few weeks, may shed additional light on just how big a delinquency the county is facing.
If the $636,618 is the actual amount of the delinquency, Belork’s bond would cover the shortage.
“My understanding is the treasurer is bonded for $800,000,” Starke County Attorney Martin Lucas said.
If the amount is closer to the nearly $900,000 that was mentioned earlier in the meeting, the bond would fall short.
Bridegroom made a motion, which was unanimously approved, to install Michelle Snowdon as the Interim Treasurer. Snowdon, who was previously a full-time employee in the assessor's office, has had experience working with the treasurer.
Starke County Council President Mark Smith asked when the position would be filled by the Democratic Party.
“My concern is things get back to normal with a treasurer in that office,” Smith said.
Lucas said the position would be filled like any other vacancy, by party caucus.
Starke County Councilman Marvin McLaughlin said a caucus at this point would be premature.
“That (a caucus) will have to wait until it’s official (Belork being permanently removed). She can appeal,” he said.
The commissioners informed those in attendance at the meeting that all steps had been taken to secure the treasurer’s office.
“All records were secured and all files backed up,” Davis said.
Bridegroom discussed additional steps taken.
“All computer passwords have also been removed, revoked or blocked. Linda Belork also turned in her keys — we are still searching for one key that she thought she left, but we can’t find it,” he said.
The question of duplicating keys was addressed by former Starke County Auditor Michaelene Houston.
“I believe those keys can’t be copied without going to a locksmith,” she said.
There were several Starke County residents in attendance; and one of the concerns mentioned was in regards to the removal of the two employees who worked for Belork.
“Why did Robin (Lenig) and the part time person (Jennifer Norem) lose their jobs, when they weren’t involved,” Judy Lenig said.
Lenig is a sister-in-law to Belork, the mother to one of the Belork’s former employees and the mother-in-law to the other — which makes Belork the aunt and aunt-in-law to the ladies who were let go.
Bridegroom said the employees were removed because they didn’t want anyone left in there who could possibly have had something to do with the situation.
Commissioner Norem made reference to the family tie as a factor that was considered in their decision to terminate.
“We’re not taking any chances. The two people were nieces of the treasurer — so that has something to do with that,” Norem said.
Lenig disagreed.
“No it doesn’t. You’re saying everyone in there is guilty,” she said.
Bridegroom said the reason the 2009 issue is being acted on in 2011 is because of the way the audits are conducted.
“The state moves very slowly. They are very very precise — they leave no stone unturned. That’s why it has taken so long,” he said.
Bridegroom said the whole situation just doesn’t sit right.
“This is a great concern to me. This doesn’t bode well for us,” he said.
Bridegroom also said the 2010 report may shed additional light on the situation.
“Some of the questions may be answered when we get reports from 2010. From what they (State Board of Accounts) are alluding to, there are so many errors the records are not even usable at this time. And the auditor who was here was asked to move to her next assignment because she had been here so long,” he said.
The length of time the State Board spent trying to resolve the delinquency issue was worrisome for Bridegroom.
“That’s what concerned me so much. If you have someone from the State Board of Accounts here who is trained to find it (the money) and they can’t — then we have a huge problem,” he said.