The possible criminal prosecution of former Transit Superintendent Betty Burriss is becoming a political flashpoint just as Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland, who had previously chosen not to prosecute Burriss, is saying there is “more digging to be done” in the case.
Mayoral candidate Kyle Thompson sent out a press release Monday blasting his opponent and current City Commissioner Bill May for staying silent on the issue. Thompson also criticized Police Chief and Interim City Manager Walter Wilhoite for his statements to The State Journal that “This should be the end” of Burriss’ investigation and that Burriss simply made “a mistake in judgment.”
In addition, City Commissioner Sellus Wilder, who pushed last week for more evidence to be turned over to Cleveland, said Wednesday that “It does appear that somebody in the city has been trying to protect this person from prosecution, and I’d like to know who it was.”
Burriss, through her attorney, has denied all allegations against her.
May said that, due to the possibility of litigation, he did not want to comment on ongoing investigations and personnel matters discussed originally in closed session.
“I mean he’s an attorney,” May said, referring to Thompson. “He should know that.”
“He’s getting desperate, you can tell,” May added.
A report alleging that Burriss stole surplus city property such as a Yamaha power generator and made personal purchases with a city credit card was emailed to city commissioners on Sept. 21. That report, which was compiled by Wilhoite, was also shown to Cleveland, after Cleveland said the city gave him a phone call about the case.
Wilhoite’s report, which included 21 pages of receipts containing suspicious items, concluded that, “I do not believe criminal prosecution is warranted,” considering that Burriss agreed to retire, return the allegedly stolen items and forfeit over $5,000 in accrued leave from her more than 20 years at the Transit Department. It also said “the Commonwealth’s Attorney does not plan to prosecute this matter.”
Cleveland said his memory of the exact process was vague, but he said there was a phone call between he and the city about the case in which he said he may have expressed his doubts about it. He said that may have been taken as his official stance, and that was why it was included in the report sent to Commissioners and himself.
But stopping criminal investigation was apparently not the City Commission’s will. While May and Mayor Gippy Graham remained silent at a Monday meeting last week, the other commissioners directed Wilhoite to present the case again to Cleveland, this time with all the evidence.
At the time, Cleveland accepted full blame for prosecution not going forward and agreed to a second look. But he said he didn’t think much of the case and doubted a jury would convict Burriss after what she had given up.
“What else do you want me to do, cut her finger off?” he said in response to the commission’s request.
But the evidence Cleveland received Monday from police was a thick stack of paper compared to the original 24-page report, and it came with 13 disks containing recorded interviews with city employees and photographs of the allegedly stolen items and surveillance video from the garage where Burriss, according the report, carted off city property in a utility trailer.
“I’m looking at it anew, and clearly I didn’t have all the information last time,” he said.
“I thought that was all there was,” he added. “But there’s a hell of a lot more, it looks like.”
Cleveland said he would begin reviewing the evidence this weekend, but didn’t know how long it would take for him to make a decision on whether to prosecute. He said his previous decision not to prosecute was not swayed by city officials, nor will his future decision be.
Thompson said the city had no right to state it did not believe prosecution was warranted in the report that was sent to Commissioners and Cleveland.
“That’s a prosecutor’s job, that’s a law enforcement job,” he said.
He said there was “no doubt” that a conflict of interest had occurred and that the commission lacked foresight when it made Police Chief Wilhoite the interim city manager. He said this issue highlights the problem of serving in both a law enforcement and political role.
“It’s been less than two months, and he’s already had a major conflict,” said Thompson, who suggested state police or the Sheriff’s Office could have investigated the case instead of Frankfort Police.
Wilhoite, who was aware of Thompson’s statements in the press release, said he had no further comments.
Thompson echoed Wilder’s previous statement that city employees who allegedly commit crimes should be held to the same standards as other residents. Thompson said he had seen shoplifters get 80 hours of community service for stealing small amounts.
Wilder said the commission had before last week ordered that all evidence be turned over to prosecutors, but said a miscommunication may have taken place. He also said the commission told the city to “not communicate that the city did not want to prosecute.” He said he wanted to leave that decision up to prosecutors.
Both Thompson and Wilder pointed out that it was odd that Burriss agreed to several specific steps following the investigation – stepping down, returning items and giving up money.
“It appears on the face of it that somebody cut a deal with Mrs. Burriss to avoid prosecution,” Wilder said.
He said he will bring the issue up at the commission meeting Monday.
May, in a statement emailed The State Journal, said, “Let me make this clear, I absolutely do not have a problem with the commonwealth’s attorney pursuing criminal actions in this case.”
While silent at the open meeting, May said he was “very involved” in the closed meeting discussion of the case.