Laura Johnston and Everdeen Mason / Plain Dealer Reporters
CLEVELAND, Ohio — A Cuyahoga County Board of Revision frequently and anonymously altered official tax records with correction fluid, violating policies designed to prevent county workers from illegally reducing assessed property values, The Plain Dealer has found.
The newspaper discovered property values inexplicably blotted out — and written over with other values — on at least a dozen worksheets that the three-member Board of Revision Panel “C” produced over four months.
The newspaper’s discovery comes days after Keith Headen, a member of Panel C, was accused of using correction fluid to reduce the value of a Mayfield Heights townhouse even though the board had voted against that reduction. The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office has launched a criminal investigation into Headen, who resigned his $64,000-a-year job Wednesday.
The Headen case, in addition to the newspaper’s discovery of other altered tax documents, provides the latest blows to the credibility of public servants in Cuyahoga County.
For nearly two years, a series of search warrants and charging documents filed by the U.S. Justice Department have revealed a long list of people who used their positions in government or their connections to public officials to enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers. Dozens of people have pleaded guilty so far, and the investigation continues.
After the Sheriff’s Office announced an investigation of Headen, The Plain Dealer asked to see records of the work of board of revision panels. The groups have a key role in county government. Property owners who dispute the assessed value of homes, businesses or vacant lots can go before the boards to plead their cases. The panels wield great power, as their decisions can reduce tax bills of property owners by thousands of dollars a year.
The panels, each made up of three salaried workers appointed by county commissioners, County Treasurer Jim Rokakis and County Auditor Frank Russo, have been swamped with work for the past few years because of the collapse of housing values. People who believe their home values are far less than assessed can wait for months for hearings.
The newspaper was able to review four months of records last week and found plenty of alterations. None of Panel C’s changes are dated or accompanied by authorizing initials, so taxpayers and auditors are left with no record of how the board actually ruled on the requests for reductions in property
Board of Revision Administrator Robert Chambers said of Headen’s work, “The question is if he changed that one . . . did he change others?”
Chambers oversees all five of the quasi-judicial panels, designated “A” through “E,” each of which rules on thousands of contested property values each year.
Catherine Turcer, of the watchdog group Ohio Citizen Action, on Friday called the tampering accusations unbelievable. “It’s nice to think you could erase your misdeeds with a little bit of Wite-Out,” she said. “It’s flabbergasting.”
Headen, 52, of Solon, was appointed last July by Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones. He resigned his post a day after county officials placed him on leave and referred the townhouse case to the Sheriff’s Office.
Officials said that Margaret Lewis, one of Headen’s fellow board members, discovered the file for the townhouse was missing early last week after a unanimous vote not to change the property value. Lewis later found that Headen had the file, officials said, and noticed correction fluid had been used to blot out the board’s no-reduction decision for the $221,000 home. A value of $190,000 was written over the fluid.
When questioned, officials said, Headen changed the value back to $221,000. County Administrator James McCafferty said at the time that board policy prohibits the use of correction fluid on the worksheets, which are considered legal documents. The substance has since been banned from board offices.
After Headen’s resignation, Chambers and Plain Dealer reporters independently examined scores of worksheets handled by Headen’s panel between December 2009 and March and both found documents altered with correction fluid. The newspaper also found correction fluid on a sampling of worksheets completed by other boards, but some of those changes were initialed.
Chambers could not explain the frequent use of correction fluid but said the alterations might reflect new information received by board members, who have 30 days to change their decisions.
Headen has referred questions to his lawyer, who did not return a call for this story. Lewis, who makes $45,000 a year, could not be reached for an explanation of the sloppy handling of worksheets bearing her signature.
Story Compliments Of The Plain Dealer