Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tom Bihl: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

“I would suggest you leave a lot of that stuff to the Auditor and his department.” 
     Soon-to-be-recalled Mayor Bauer's bad  advice to city council regarding soon-to-be-indicted city auditor Tom Bihl (9 Feb. 1998).

     Frank Lewis of the Portsmouth Daily Times (PDT) reported in the Sunday edition (25 July 2010) that a  former police chief who is also a former city auditor, Thomas Bihl, has appointed himself the leader of the campaign to recall Portsmouth mayor Jane Murray because nobody else had stepped forward. Not one of  those people who have clamored for a recall of Murray on various websites and chatrooms had  the courage to come forward because that would have required them,  instead of hiding behind the mask of anonymity on the internet, to reveal who they are.

     Both  as police chief and city auditor Bihl  was and is becoming again, judging from the reaction of the public, a notoriously controversial figure. For somebody who has delegated himself  the  leader of the campaign to recall  Portsmouth mayor Jane Murray, he couldn’t have picked a worse person than  himself. Bihl  has too much baggage and dirty laundry to lead any kind of a crusade. Did Frank Lewis expose  any of  Bihl’s dirty laundry when he reported that “the former police chief” was leading the effort to recall Murray?  No, not one dirty  bit  of it.  Lewis’s job at the Portsmouth Daily Times, when he is not slanting the news, is to launder it. Nevertheless,  I don’t think Bihl's crusade  is likely to get farther than the three hundred block  of  Offnere St., the scene of one of the strangest ever automobile accidents in Portsmouth's  history.

Tom Evel Knievel or Hell on Wheels Bihl

     In  explaining why he is leading the recall campaign, Bihl told Lewis, “I like this city. I’ve been here all my life, and it really upsets me as to what has happened.”  By “as to what has happened,” he means  apparently what has happened  in the six months or so  Murray has been mayor. Bihl is in his early sixties. My question is why isn’t he  upset about what happened in Portsmouth in the last sixty years, including the twelve years he was chief of police?  A good part of the surge in  crime and drugs took place when   he was chief. And what about his  own shenanigans when he was  chief?  Let’s start  with the   Evel Knievel one-man demolition derby he performed   back in December 1992 on  Offnere.  That accident  was reported by Jeff Henson, in the Portsmouth Daily Times, back when there were still a few honest reporters at that newspaper, before they all left or were fired and replaced with the  likes of a Frank Lewis. According to  Henson’s  report, “Portsmouth Police Department Chief Thomas Bihl hit three parked  vehicles Tuesday night and totaled two of them.”  I can imagine how two cars coming from opposite directions and traveling above the speed limit on Offnere  might  be totaled, but how could two parked  vehicles on a street be totaled and by the chief law enforcement official in the city who couldn’t remember how it happened?  If he wasn’t drunk,  how did the accident happen? He told Henson he couldn’t remember how it happened but did insist he wasn’t intoxicated, even though a woman who was driving northbound on Offnere said she was nearly hit head-on by his van.

     Bihl was the boss of the  two  police officers, patrolman Brad Evans and Sergeant Steven Diamond, the first to arrive on the scene. They  did not give Bihl a breathalyzer test or issue him  a citation even though his failure to control his van was listed in the police report as the cause of the accident.  A mechanical failure was not the cause. Bihl was.  Patrolman Evans and Sergeant Diamond said they did not test Bihl for alcohol because they did not smell  alcohol on his breath. Maybe officers Evans and Diamond themselves should have been tested for olfactory dysfunction. Even the PDT, in a rare display of editorial moral outrage, found Bihl impossible to stomach. They checked with a police chief from another city who said his department would have insisted somebody outside the department do an investigation. A PDT   editorial, “Police Chief Should be Accountable, ” said of the apparent cover up of Bihl's culpability,  “For too long there has existed an image that two ‘classes’ exist, ‘the haves who can get away with anything’ and ‘everybody else’ ” (9 Dec. 1992).

Totally Smashed

     Bihl didn’t see anything wrong with totaling two vehicles and smashing another and not being tested or cited, but now he thinks Portsmouth with Murray as mayor is going to hell. He doesn’t specify in what ways it is going to hell. Could it be the high priority she has put on fighting drugs or the efforts she has made to make driving in the city less hazardous by getting  the traffic lights turned on again? Are those some of the ways she is  ruining the city?

     Bihl figured out  a public relations move to placate the public.  He ordered  Sergeant Diamond to cite him, after the fact,  which Diamond, following his boss’s orders,  did. Bihl was fined $61.00 in Municipal Court. Perhaps he  thought that would be  the end of it. But it wasn’t. Bihl had not only totaled two vehicles, he had badly damaged the image of the city  and the police department. As the PDT editorialized, “The manner in which this whole episode was handled  seriously jeopardizes the integrity of this entire [police] department. Bihl’s boss, Mayor Frank Gerlach,  was  not impressed by Bihl’s performance as police chief. With Gerlach as mayor, Bihl did not have much job security. If Bihl  felt his days as chief were numbered, so did some other people. So what did Bihl do? He eventually  came up with the kind of solution that he could have gotten away with only in Portsmouth. The city auditor’s position was open because the previous auditor, who herself had been appointed to the office,  had resigned. Although he had neither the education or experience to be auditor, any more than the current auditor Trent Williams has,  Bihl  had supporters on the city council, including Jim Kalb and Ann Sydnor. Over the strong objections of  Mayor Gerlach, who claimed the city council was  violating the city charter,  the council appointed Bihl auditor, passing over a half dozen other candidates, one of whom was a Certified Public Accountant.  A PDT editorial (29 May 1997) criticized the city council  for allowing Bihl to “double-dip,” to retire from one city position and take another. The editorial pointed out that the council in appointing Bihl was going against a 1995 city ordinance that was intended to prevent double-dipping. “Appointing someone to a new city job before they’ve even left their current city position seems to contradict the stand they previously took.”

     Once appointed, one of  Bihl’s first acts as auditor, the PDT reported,  was to pay himself   some $15,370 in  unused sick days, which he  claimed he was entitled to since he had  retired as police chief. Gerlach argued that Bihl, as auditor,  was still employed by the city and would have to wait until he was retired before he could collect that money. The PDT quoted Gerlach as saying Bihl paid himself the money “with no oversight and no checks and balances” (8 June 1997).  Bihl claimed Gerlach had it in for him and was conducting a vendetta. Futhermore, Bihl claimed, adding insult to injury,  the city still owed him an additional $9,000 for unused vacation and holiday pay.  Only in Portsmouth!

     As auditor, Bihl conducted business in a way that has had far reaching, harmful  financial consequences for the city. At a meeting ( 9 February 1998),  the city council passed a budget that included a line-item budget provision that required the auditor  to have money in hand for any expenditure he approved. If the money was not there, he could not approve that  budget item. The intention was to stop the abuse  of having an auditor use money that had been appropriated for  one item being used for something else.  As Council member Ray Pyles pointed out at the same  council meeting, he had heard horror stories where a department was given $10,000 to pay phone bills but spent only $500 for calls and  the rest went to pay for something else, with no accountability. Bihl complained that not allowing him to move money around from  account to account tied his hands. Did he want more freedom  to finagle? Bihl was backed up by Greg Bauer, who had just been elected mayor, and who was about to help cook up the Marting Scam  in which almost 2 million dollars was allegedly illegally moved around. Bauer defended Bihl's moving money around, saying at the  same meeting (9 Feb. 1998),   “I would suggest you leave a lot of that stuff to the Auditor and his department.” The council followed Bauer's suggestion and repealed the provision that had prohibited Bihl from moving money around without the council's permission.

A Shady Bauer

Mayor Bauer, of course, adopted  the same “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Policy.” The city government has been following that policy ever since, taking money from one account or department to pay the expenses of another. This kind of finagling is in violation of state law, according to Murray, and is one of the reasons the city is in a critical budget shortfall. The water and sewer accounts in particular have been used as piggy banks to pay other operating expenses of city government, including salaries of public employees. Because the city council does not have to go to the voters for approval of rate hikes for water and sewers, it keeps  on raising those rates in part to pay for the generous health and retirement packages it pays city employees. Of  course the council and mayors Bauer and Kalb didn’t  dare end this “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Policy”  because the public employees unions would be up in arms with any official  who dared to tamper with this arrangement. That she has dared to tamper with the arrangement is one of the reasons  Murray is in such political hot water with public employees.  But she argues that the current economic crisis in the state, county, and city  allows her no alternative. The Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Policy will no longer work. At a political forum in the Welcome Center  late last fall, as the mayoral campaign neared its  end, Murray said Paul could no longer be paid  because Peter was broke. The piper must be paid, and the piper’s name is not Peter or Paul, and it is not Tom Bihl. It is John Q. Public who wants an end to the Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Policy that Bihl practiced as auditor.

     It is ironic  that Bihl, who helped put the city in the financial mess it’s in,  should be the one to lead the Recall Murray Campaign. Those who know Bihl have told me  he may be angling  for  yet a third  job with the city, maybe this time as mayor, or auditor again, which would be a case of triple dipping.  In the unlikely event that Bihl ever triple dips, the city could  have a financial crash that will make the demolition derby he was involved in on Offnere St. in 1992 look like a wheel coming off a soap box derby racer.

Robbing Peter to Pay Tom 

     The  low point of Bihl’s career as auditor came when his Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Policy finally caught up with him and he was indicted by a Scioto Grand Jury in May 1999 for theft in office. He was accused of having used the public treasury  to pay for repairs on his personal vehicle when he was police chief. He protested he was innocent and had simply made a bookkeeping error. But if  the personal vehicle in need of repairs was the  same van in which Bihl had  totaled two parked vehicles in 1992, then instead of stealing Indian Head Rock from Kentucky to teach local school children about  their Appalachian heritage, maybe the  city should have impounded Bihl’s  van  and  put it on display in the Welcome Center to show  visitors a genuine artifact of Portsmouth’s river vices culture. Or even better, maybe the van could have been placed in the display window of Marting’s Department store, itself a three-floor leaking monument to everything that is rotten in Portsmouth’s politics. The historic van could be accompanied in the display window with wax figures of the corrupt mayors,  police chiefs, and auditors, including Bihl, who have given city government such a bad nameAnd now that bad name may become even worse because Bihl (of all people!) has appointed himself the leader of the crusade to recall Mayor Murray. Do the other people who are serving on the recall committee (Grant Stephan, Ronald Meyers, Amy Kayser, and Tim Arms) really know who Bihl is and what his role has been in this city?  Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I suspect they do not. 

(I want to thank the always vigilant Austin Leedom for important leads on this story.)