Former Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh entered a no-contest plea to theft charges Tuesday in West Chester.
Prosecutors charged Welsh, 76, in November, saying she allowed employees to improperly collect comp time for volunteering at fund-raisers for the office’s K-9 unit. The deputies also sometimes volunteered for the fund-raisers while on the clock for the county, according to court records.
Her live-in boyfriend and longtime subordinate, Harry McKinney, faced similar charges for diverting about $4,000 meant for the unit to cover personal expenses. He also entered a no-contest plea Tuesday.
By pleading no contest, Welsh and McKinney acknowledged the facts of the case as outlined by prosecutors but did not admit guilt.
Welsh’s attorney, Geoffrey Johnson, declined to comment, as did McKinney’s attorney, Coley Reynolds. Both Welsh and McKinney will be sentenced sometime in the next 90 days. The charges against them are misdemeanors that carry penalties of probation. It was unclear whether they would have to pay restitution to the county.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office prosecuted the case, said the couple took advantage of their high-ranking positions in the county sheriff’s office.
“Enforcing the law does not put you above it,” Shapiro said. “We will continue to shut down corruption wherever it is found.”
Welsh, a prominent longtime Republican in the county who served as a delegate to the party’s national convention in 2016, declined to run for reelection in 2019.
She and McKinney let sheriff’s office employees complete volunteer work during their scheduled shifts for the county, and let them accrue comp time for that work, according to the affidavit of probable cause for their arrests.
The county’s K-9 unit is funded primarily through donations and fund-raisers, including an annual Wild Game Dinner staffed by sheriff’s office employees. McKinney used some of the funds for other expenses, including grooming and medical care for his pet dog, the complaint said.
The charges came after two years of inquiry into Welsh and her office by County Controller Margaret Reif. Reif subpoenaed financial records from the sheriff’s office in 2018, producing an audit that expressed concern over how the unit spent and accounted for nearly $200,000 in donations.
Reif referred the investigation to then-District Attorney Thomas P. Hogan, who in turn referred it to Shapiro’s office, citing a conflict of interest because he had donated to the K-9 fund in the past.
In 2019, Reif separately sued Welsh in county court, seeking a reimbursement of $67,000 in overtime she said Welsh improperly paid McKinney. In the lawsuit, Reif contends the overtime payments were “abnormal and inconsistent with county policy.”
The controller described the payments — by far the highest within the sheriff’s office — as a way for Welsh to pad her household income and help “spike” retirement benefits for McKinney, with whom she has lived for 15 years.
McKinney was considered an entry-level employee by payroll standards and was eligible to accrue overtime. Despite this, Reif said, McKinney had been given administrative-level duties, overseeing the sheriff’s K-9 unit and having other members of the department report to him. Such duties should have made him a salaried employee unable to collect overtime, she said.
In court filings, Welsh defended the overtime payments, saying McKinney earned what he was paid. She has called the controller’s inquiries a misrepresentation of financial records and “a negative attempt to smear” her.
The case was paused after Shapiro’s office filed criminal charges against the couple.