Significance of unsealed documents disputed by mayor

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By Linda Ireland

TV reporters descended on the LaRue County Circuit Clerk’s office last week after learning information had been released in a criminal case involving Hodgenville City Hall.
The contents of a cardboard box, previously sealed by a judge’s order, were placed in five large binders that take up the top of a file cabinet in the clerk’s office. Certain documents that held personal communications between Hodgenville Mayor Terry Cruse and City Clerk/Treasurer MaDonna Hornback were removed – sections were redacted from others – by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.
Documents made public include detective and auditor reports, invoices, receipts, photos, mileage logs, bank records and witness statements.
The personal messages remain sealed pending a decision by the Court of Appeals. Ron Mather, attorney for Cruse and Hornback, has filed a motion in LaRue Circuit Court to have those communications suppressed. He said the search and seizure of the personal communications “exceeded the scope of the search warrant issued” and asked they not be presented at trial. The motion will be heard April 4.
Cruse, 56, was charged in December with nine counts of abuse of public trust; one count of theft by unlawful taking; two counts of campaign contribution restrictions/expense limits; and two counts of second-degree forgery after an investigation by Kentucky State Police.
Hornback, 52, was charged with 54 counts of abuse of public trust; and one count of theft by unlawful taking.
They are accused of misusing the city’s fleet fuel card and being reimbursed at a higher rate than the state allows for mileage.
There are no new charges – only details provided in the ongoing cases.
The photos and receipts available in the binders appear to show Cruse and Hornback filling up their personal vehicles at Circle K in Hodgenville – where Hornback once worked – and using the city’s card to pay for it. Cruse’s son, Daniel Cruse, and Hornback’s son, Andrew Hornback, also used the fleet card to fill up personal vehicles.
Fuel tax was not paid on any of the transactions.
Both Daniel Cruse and Andrew Hornback are city employees, according to City Hall records. Neither were charged in the criminal case.
“The Abuse of Public Trust statute requires the defendant to be an ‘officer” of the city,’” said Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Whitney Meredith, in an earlier interview. “... The city clerk is named as an officer in the handbook and obviously the mayor is too. The theory is they had to know those cards were being used....”
Mayor Cruse and Clerk Hornback also turned in mileage for use of their personal vehicles, according to documents.
Between Oct. 5, 2011, and June 5, 2013, the clerk was paid $6,180.78 in mileage reimbursements; the mayor was paid $7,045.09 for the same timeframe.
The auditor found the clerk had 556 fuel transactions on her city gas card worth more than $22,000 between June 1, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2012. (Editor’s note: Fifty-four of those transactions were included in indictments.)
KSP’s auditor found descriptions on the mayors’ receipts did not match the surveillance images at least nine times.
When asked about the number of charges against Cruse and Hornback, Meredith said, “The evidence compiled by KSP strongly supports our charges.”
Mayor Cruse provided a written statement that was reviewed by his attorney, Ron Mather. It states: “It is unfortunate that the Commonwealth Attorney and the media feel they have to try this case in the public rather than wait for the June trial date.
I would like to say that the police report just released was closed out in October 2013 and it is not new information as some of the media outlets would lead you to believe. It is the same unfounded accusations that the state has had for months and no charges came out of those accusations. It contains all of the rumors and accusations told to the prosecutors by some of the disgruntled council members that I feel serves only to promote their own personal agendas.
The media has picked out items that we at the City have legitimate uses for on a routine basis for all departments, (such as) city hall, water, sewer, police and maintenance. If you choose to go through (other agencies') records as close as mine have been scrutinized, these purchases are no different than what you would find at the school system or county government.
I am proud of the work I have accomplished in the past seven years and look forward to proving our innocence in court, revealing the true motives I believe started this investigation. Until then we will continue to serve the people that I have been elected to serve with dignity and respect.”
The investigation into the alleged abuse of the gas cards came after the manager of Circle K noticed the activity, according to records. Circle K clerks kept track of the gas purchases and made notes on their observations. Store manager Jenny Heath reported her suspicions to the LaRue County Sheriff’s office, which passed the information to City Councilman James Phelps Jr. He turned the matter over to KSP.
KSP interviewed Phelps in April 2012. The detective reported, “Phelps said the sheriff’s department declined to work a complaint on the accusation, but did refer it to him.”
Other city council members were contacted by KSP between August and December 2013.
A joint statement by Mayor Cruse and Clerk Hornback that was intended to be read before a LaRue County grand jury in December was among the documentation. The statement said the charges were “politically and personally driven and not the result of any violation of law or our duty and trust to the citizens of Hodgenville.” Among the “individuals and groups offended by policies and positions” of the City included disgruntled water customers, Hodgenville Main Street, which was dissolved by City Council, the LaRue family, and Red Hill Cemetery Commission which was disbanded by the City, according to the statement.
The statement also claims the charges were brought to derail Mayor Cruse’s run for LaRue County Sheriff.
“When it comes to either myself or MaDonna being entitled to the amount of gas that was put in our personal vehicles, we have written proof that if we had been taking mileage vs. putting gas directly in our vehicles, the city expenses would be much higher. Yes, there were times we asked our sons to put the gas in our vehicles for us. They are both city employees and have been for 3-4 years with the councils’ full knowledge. They also put gas in city vehicles.”
Among the evidence is the city’s code of ethics which was passed during in November 1994 during Mayor Glenda Wathen’s tenure. Wathen now serves on city council.
The code of ethics prohibits the personal use of “any city time, funds, personnel, equipment or other personal or real property for the private use of any person” unless the use is specifically permitted by stated city policy and the use is available to the general public.
It also states “no officer or employee of the city or a city agency shall advocate, recommend or cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer or advancement of a family member to an office or position of employment with the city or a city agency.”
The policy also calls for the creation of an ethics board to enforce the code. It requires city council members, candidates, planning and zoning, board of adjustments and members of the board of ethics to disclose their financial interests annually.
Mayor Cruse said he became aware of the ethics ordinance in the last few months. He believes it is the city council’s job to make sure the ordinance is updated if needed, and followed.
“If I broke it, every council member has broken it,” he said. “They’ve never followed it.”
The mayor and city clerk say they are innocent of the criminal charges and are continuing in their duties.
Their trials are set for June 9.