BROWN COUNTY, OH (FOX19) - When Brown County leaders decided to load up 98 inmates last month and ship them to Butler County, it knew taxpayers were about to be in trouble. The county had no choice but to evacuate its 34 year old jail after the county's insurer said, enough is enough.
For more than 30 years, Brown County jail officers knew walking into work carried more risks than any other jail around. It's not that the inmates were more dangerous than any other county. The problems here were that the cell doors inside the Brown County Detention Center weren't reliable.
"We got lucky"
"I have four kids, I like to go home every night," BCDC Corporal Dana McGuffey told FOX19 NOW during an interview inside the empty jail last week. McGuffey is the reason the county finally took the steps toward repairing the door locking system.
McGuffey filed a grievance on Oct. 26, citing unsafe working conditions inside the jail after a door wouldn't lock, letting about a dozen inmates out of a holding cell.
"We had a fight on this block, it was down the hall. The day room door was broken. While we went down to attend to the fight, 10 to 15 inmates came out of this day room and into the hallway between us and the main door," McGuffey told FOX19 NOW.
McGuffey and her fellow officers were outnumbered, but were able to talk the inmates into returning to the cell.
McGuffey joined the BCDC in December 2009, but said she had no idea about the jail doors when she applied and no one informed her there was a problem, "I soon found out the more I got back in the jail. I've been here six years and there's been issues since I've been here," McGuffey said.
It took the county 16 days after McGuffey's grievance to make a decision. On Nov. 12, the county ordered an evacuation of the jail, sending all 98 inmates to the Butler County jail.
"SERIOUS SAFETY CONCERNS"
The county admitted to FOX19 NOW that jail door failures were a daily event there and had been since around 1983. That's when Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger said the company that manufactured the air lock systems for the jail went out of business.
The BCDC cell doors open and close using a pneumatic system, powered by an electrical system. The problems, the sheriff said, cropped up as parts were worn and failed. When the county attempted to purchase replacement parts, the parts no longer existed, Wenninger said.
We filed an open records request with the county commissioners' office, asking for spending records of all jail maintenance since Jan. 1, 2010. Those records show the commissioners' were approving repair work as far back as January 2010, but the sheriff told FOX19 NOW, those repairs had been ongoing since at least 1983.
County records show the sheriff's office tried to have the problem fixed in November 2013.
In a Nov. 1, 2013 letter, former Brown County Sheriff Chief Deputy John Schadle told the county the door problem posed "serious safety concerns" and needed to be repaired. Shcadle continued, "This will cut maintenance costs, as fixing door problems is the reason most often listed on maintenance requests," the letter shows.
The records the county provided to us under the open records law do not show Schadle received a response from the county commissioners.
Days later, the sheriff's office called an Alabama-based jail door manufacturer in, asking them to provide an estimate for replacing the air locking system with a modern electrical system.
In a Jan. 6, 2014 letter to the commissioners, Schadle listed an estimate from Willo Products at $364,000. The price would have resolved the three decade old jail door problem at the BCDC.
The records the county provided FOX19 NOW does not show the county responded to Schadle's estimate or pursued further efforts to contract with a vendor to resolve the issue.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
The county turned over hundreds of pages of records to us after we filed an open records request in November, investigating how the county allowed its jail to get to the point of a complete shutdown. Those records told the story about who was hired to perform the jail door repairs and how many tax dollars the county spent.
The records we requested only go back to January 2010. That month a jail door repair was made by Stan's Electrical Construction, a Georgetown-based electrical contractor. The company is owned by Stan Pack, a man who retired in 2013.
Pack's company charged the county $25 an hour for labor to perform work on the jail doors and various other electrical and general maintenance work throughout the jail, the invoices show. It's a rate Pack told FOX19 NOW he never changed in his 20 years of performing work for Brown County.
"I started in 1993 and it never changed until the day the commissioners quit using me," Pack told FOX19 NOW.
State records show Pack was a licensed electrical contractor until June 30, 2015 when his license expired following his 2013 retirement.
County records show the county started paying another man to perform jail door repairs in December 2013. That contractor, Sam's Electric, continued working inside the jail as late as November 2015, the county's invoicing shows.
Sam's Electric is owned by Sam Mock, an Adams County man who worked for Stan Pack for several years before Pack retired in 2013 after his health forced him into an early retirement.
County records show Mock charged the county $50,760.53 since December 2013. That money was paid to Mock's "Sam's Electric" for jail door repairs and various other maintenance at the jail.
The problem: the state of Ohio requires all commercial electrical contractors to carry an electrician's license through the Ohio Department of Commerce. A search of the online data base shows no such license for Mock and a call to the ODC's Columbus office showed Mock is not a licensed electrical contractor.
A search of the Ohio Secretary of State's Office corporation database does not show a filing exists for Sam's Electrical, registered to Sam Mock.
TRACKING DOWN THE MEN IN CHARGE
We reached out to the Brown County commissioners' office on Dec. 11, asking for an interview with the three elected officials about what we'd uncovered in this investigation. That call was never returned.
We went to the county commissioners' meeting on Dec. 14 to track the officials down and question them about the decades-old jail door issue and the contractors the county paid to repair the doors.
Commissioner Barry Woodruff told FOX19 NOW he would do the talking for the other two commissioners, Tony Applegate and Daryll Gray.
"You've got the camera on the guy that you can blame," Woodruff told FOX19 NOW, "I'm fine being blamed for the doors not functioning, but it started 30 years ago."
Woodruff was in office in 2013 when the sheriff's office started sending the commissioners monthly jail maintenance updates. The county owns the jail and is responsible for the maintenance of it, the sheriff told FOX19 NOW.
Woodruff admitted his board didn't do anything then to further the sheriff's attempts to gather quotes in order to permanently repair the jail door problem, "That estimate was looked at and we got the message back: that's not how you bid county work. You don't go off one estimate," Woodruff said, "Taxpayers don't like that."
"We needed to get more (estimates) and it never came," Woodruff said.
The commission continued approving monthly spending on jail door maintenance in the interim, county invoicing records show. That spending happened without a competitively bid contract, Woodruff acknowledged.
"QUIT ASKING THE QUESTION"
In the Dec. 11 interview, Brown County Commissioner Barry Woodruff admitted the county never checked the credentials of the men performing the work on the jail doors. The state requires commercial tradesmen to be licensed to perform work, according to the Ohio Department of Commerce.
Our investigation found, Sam's Electric owner Sam Mock, the man the county paid for jail door repairs since Dec. 2013 was not a licensed electrician.
"Did we vet him to continue to continue the work? No," Woodruff told FOX19 NOW. "Why not," FOX19 NOW's Jody Barr asked, "The same guy had been working on them for 30 years," Woodruff replied.
"We just didn't do it," Woodruff said.
Woodruff said the county wanted to use local contractors and admitted it didn't follow state regulations in using licensed contractors to perform that work.
"Is this going to be your whole story because you're running out of soap here with me," Woodruff told FOX19 NOW when questioned further about failures to vet contractors.
"You're grinding hamburger way too much," Woodruff said.
County spending records show the county paid Sam's Electric $1,450 on Nov. 1 for "jail door maintenance." That's the last invoice the county shows from that contractor.
On Dec. 11, we interviewed Brown County Chief Deputy Carl Smith to gather the latest information on the jail repair matter and questioned Smith about the county's use of an unlicensed contractor. Smith told FOX19 he knew nothing about that, but said he talked to Woodruff following our interview, and informed the commissioner of the questions we had regarding Sam's Electric's lack of a commercial electrician's license.
When we interviewed Woodruff three days later, he indicated the county would not be using Sam's Electric, "In the long term, probably not because of the licensing issue," Woodruff told FOX19.
SAM MOCK: "What's that got to do with working on mechanical stuff?"
We tracked Sam Mock down at the business address listed on the Brown County invoices. The address is actually Mock's home in Adams County. Mock agreed to an interview when we found him Dec. 14.
Mock said electrical work was not the focus of his contractor work, despite his company's name showing otherwise, "A lot of times I don't fool with electrical components and if I do, it's just replacing a transistor or a diode or something," Mock said.
Mock admitted the county knew he wasn't licensed but kept him as the lone jail door repairman despite the state requiring electrical contractors to be licensed, "What's that got to do with working on mechanical stuff," Mock replied.
Mock said he mostly worked on the "rollers" and other mechanical components inside the jail door mechanisms. He also performed welds and fabrication work on the doors when mechanical parts would break, Mock explained.
Mock told FOX19 NOW he tried to become licensed but did not pass the examinations.
Our investigation uncovered another change between the time Stan's Electrical Construction lost the jail door work and the time Sam's Electric took over the job: the hourly labor rate charged to the county doubled.
Stan's Electrical Construction charged the county $25 an hour for labor and Sam's Electric charged $50 an hour for labor, county spending records show.
"Do you believe $50 an hour was a fair charge," Barr asked Mock, "Sure. Absolutely," Mock replied.
Mock defended his work, telling FOX19 NOW that no one "knows that building better than me." Mock carries a $1 million insurance policy, he claimed during the Dec. 14 interview.
AFTER 30 YEARS, A FIX IS COMING
Our analysis of county spending records shows, since January 2010, Brown County approved expenditures of $129,568.89 on parts and repairs to the jail doors. None of the spending provided a permanent fix, the records show.
The county, Commissioner Barry Woodruff told FOX19 NOW, spent $80,000 on jail door repairs in 2015.
This week the county escorted engineers from Willo Products into the jail. The engineers are making measurements and design plans to take back to their Decatur, Alabama headquarters to begin work producing retrofitted parts for modernizing the Brown County jail door locking system.
When we met with Woodruff on Dec. 14 he told FOX19 NOW the county had a "letter of intent" to award the contract to Willo Products but that a contract had not been signed. Willo Products won the contract out of five separate firms to bid on the job.
All three county commissioners signed the letter of intent was signed Dec. 9, telling Willo Products Company Vice President, Jack Ozier, to start engineering and planning on the $343,400 project. Woodruff told FOX19 NOW, the contract will be signed "this week."
The commission told FOX19 NOW the jail is set to reopen April 1, 2016.
Meanwhile, Brown County deputies are making at least two trips daily between Brown County and Butler County where the county's inmates are being held. A round trip averages four hours and 130 miles and takes manpower from the county, Chief Deputy Carl Smith told FOX19 NOW.
The deal is benefiting Butler County. Brown County is paying $60 a day per inmate to Butler County during the evacuation, Smith said. The cost to tax payers is $4,020 a day, Smith confirmed.
Inmate cost per day runs $35 a day in the Brown County jail, Chief Smith said.
The county just wrote the first month's rent check to Butler County. That check was for $120,600.
The total cost of inmate rent payments to Butler County could top $500,000 by April 1, provided the Brown County jail is reopened on time.