Former Mount Sterling village administrator gets 10 years in prison

By Erin Thompson -

Former Mount Sterling village administrator Joe Johnson was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing from the village over a four-year period.

Judge Eamon Costello handed down the sentence Monday in Madison County Common Pleas Court.

In January, Johnson pleaded guilty to engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, commonly known as racketeering, theft, theft in office and money laundering, ranging in severity from first- to third-degree felonies.

In exchange for the guilty pleas, the state dropped 23 additional felony charges and, most notably, agreed to not press charges against Johnson’s wife, Tara, who was present for sentencing with the couple’s two children.

Johnson on two separate occasions during sentencing asked the court to confirm his wife would not be charged. Officials obliged.

He was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $724,239 to the village, as well as more than $43,000 for the cost of the audit. Several vehicles and tools seized from Johnson’s Jackson, Ohio home — and the home itself — are to be forfeited to the state.

During the proceedings, Costello condemned many Mount Sterling officials, stating that “checks and balances were non-existent.” He said purchases made on the village’s credit card during a Pigeon Forge, Tennessee vacation were a blatant misuse of public money, and “couldn’t pass the smell test if anyone had actually looked at them.”

He criticized the village council for changing its rules in 2014, allowing Johnson sole control of the village’s finances.

“The overall picture is an outrageously loose operation,” Costello said.

Further, the judge hinted that several village officials should be “worried about their own skin.” He said many were “on the receiving end of financial rewards administered by Johnson.”

That’s something Johnson’s defense attorneys agreed upon. Attorney Mike Murray said Johnson has “regret,” but didn’t act alone.

Murray also referenced the 2014 rule change, noting it was even approved by legal counsel.

“Who let that one get by?” he said. “It seems to be there were a whole lot of people complicit. And who is sitting here today? It is a huge injustice that Johnson has been singled out when other people are involved in the crime.”

He continued.

“There were a whole lot of people asleep at the wheel on this thing and a whole lot of other people were complicit,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to me if there are some other charges filed.”

Murray called Johnson “a hard worker.” He asked for a lesser prison sentence to allow Johnson to work and pay back the money. He also noted it would prevent “undue economic burden” on the local, state and federal government.

Prior to his sentencing, Johnson told the judge that he pleaded guilty for his family and that he wants to get home to his wife and two children. He also apologized for his joking behavior during the previous hearing.

Special prosecutor Bob Smith, with the Ohio Auditor’s Office, noted that while Johnson is a first-time offender, he is a multi-offender.

“Instead of a significant surplus, [Mount Sterling] has a significant deficit,” he said, noting the $400,000 deficit in the village’s general fund.

Smith said charges against other individuals are coming, but declined to comment on any more details. Officials wanted to complete Johnson’s case before moving on the others.

“You’re never truly satisfied when you have a community that’s so torn apart, but we’ve accomplished what you hope to to hold someone accountable for their actions,” Smith said following the hearing.

The state auditor’s office released a statement Monday afternoon.

“Joe Johnson used Mt. Sterling’s credit cards like a personal slush fund. The scale of his financial abuse is hard to comprehend, but it’s even more staggering when you consider the financial resources of a village,” Auditor of State Dave Yost stated. “Today, the people of the village can be relieved that justice has been served.”

Reach Erin Thompson at 740-852-1616 ext. 1615.

By Erin Thompson