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ABC57 Investigates: Trouble with townships

For the last several months ABC57 has been investigating township governments and what is really being done with tax payer dollars. We've uncovered several investigations -- including some that have turned criminal.

Prairie township sits among the farm fields on the southern edge of La Porte County.

"It's just a small farming community," said Bob Younggreen.

Younggreen served on the township advisory board for almost 20 years. He stepped into the trustee role a few years ago when former trustee Lynne Shei made headlines for making more than $40,000 in unauthorized payments.

ABC57 Investigative Reporter Drew Gardner asked Younggreen what the first sign of trouble was.

"When we got called by the Board of Accounts, the State Police and the FBI to have a meeting because they couldn't get ahold of her," said Younggreen.

The board was having the same problem. They hadn't seen Shei since the meetings were moved from her home to the township's official offices.

"We couldn't get her to show up for a meeting for over a year," said Younggreen. "We were having our own meetings. There was nothing we could really do, but we were here without books"

Current Board President Dan Meder attended the township board meetings at the time this was all happenign before assuming his position.

"It was just mind boggling that the trustee does not show up and the board just sits there and is frustrated because they can't do anything because really the trustee has all the power," said Meder.

Power she was certainly using.

When the State Board of Accounts did get a hold of the books they found she was busy making payments alright, but not on behalf of the township.

The audit showed between January 11, 2011 and December 31, 2014 she made more than $20,000 in undocumented payments to herself and other family members.

She also racked up thousands of dollars in fines with the IRS for failing to pay the township's payroll taxes.

"She has the authority to do the checkbook," said Younggreen. "We didn't. I went to the bank where we have our checking account and they wouldn't tell me anything because we weren't on the account. It was just her name."

The bank actually let Shei make more than $7,000 worth of transfers from the township account into her personal account.

It took Younggreen and the board three years to get the township's finances back on track.

Prairie Township isn't the only place where this is happening.

Our investigation found more than a dozen State Board of Accounts audits of our local townships where tax dollars were mishandled in some way.

You can view the audits for each local township where tax dollars were in some way mishandled by clicking the links below.

Some amounts were small like Elkhart County's Jackson Township.

The trustee there using township funds to buy personal gift cards in the month of December for three years totaling $617.

Others were much larger like Tippecanoe Township in Pulaski County.

The rural area is made up mostly of farm fields and the small town of Monterey.

Former trustee Kathleen Keller was charged with theft, forgery and official misconduct.

According to this 2016 audit, Keller made almost $100,000 worth of unauthorized payments to herself between January of 2012 and April of 2016.

Current trustee Martie White made the discovery in August of 2016 after taking over for Keller when she suddenly resigned.

"We hardly had any money in the account," said White. "500 and some dollars with outstanding invoices that hadn't been paid."

And more bills on the way for cemetery maintenance and the township's fire protection.

"It took us a while to even get people convinced we have a problem here," said White. "Somebody needs to look into it. "

White was persistent though and eventually got someone to listen.

"From the Pulaski County Prosecutor contacting the Indiana State Police Investigator and them contacting State Board of Accounts," said White.

The township's scheduled audit was then moved up.

In the meantime, White was forced to take out an emergency loan to make sure the township kept its fire protection.

"We started over basically," said White.

This wasn't the first time they came close to starting over. The trustee before Keller had also mishandled tax dollars -- overpaying her salary and her husband's salary who was the deputy clerk.

The total over-payments then added up to more than $27,000.

By now you may be asking -- how does this keep happening so often in so many townships?

We did too. So we went to local lawmakers.

ABC57 reached out to all the Indiana State Representatives for our area. All declined to comment on this story.

During this year's legislative sessions -- House Bill 1005 was introduced. It would have consolidated township government -- requiring townships with populations fewer than 1,200 people to merge with other townships. The bill failed to make it to a full vote.

"You need your small township trustees, because they know the people and they know what's needed in the townships," said White. "So I don't think combining and going bigger is the answer."

Instead she believes there just needs to be more oversight.

"All of this stuff is public record is the thing," said White. "Anyone can come to the front door at any time, ask to see those things and they can see them. Taxpayers need to be concerned and watch their money like they do their personal money."

Back in Prairie Township the board has put new rules in place that will hopefully prevent this from happening again.

"You just have everything to where no matter who comes to the meetings can actually look at it and you're out front," said Meder.

"Accountability. Opening up the books," added Younggreen "Let everybody know what's going on. I write checks once a month and it's always right here."

For any current or future trustees out there who might be thinking of abusing their power -- Younggreen has this message.

"Be careful. Your time is coming," said Youngreen.

Since our first story investigating township government aired in March we have received several calls, emails and personal visits from people asking us to investigate their townships. We are looking into those cases with the help of the State Board of Accounts and will bring you updates as we get them.

You can view the audits for each local township where tax dollars were in some way mishandled by clicking the links below.

Elkhart County

Baugo Township

Jackson Township

Fulton County

Aubbeenaubbee Township

New Castle Township

Kosciusko County

Monroe Township

La Porte County

Prairie Township

LaGrange County

Greenfield Township

Pulaski County

Tippecanoe Township

Tippecanoe Township

Starke County

North Bend Township

Wayne Township

Wayne Township

St. Joseph County

Olive Township

Olive Township

Penn Township

If you think there may be trouble in your township send us an email to 57investigates@abc57.com -- or call our investigative tip line at 574-344-5579.

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