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Former Chester County sheriff ordered to reimburse county in K-9 unit theft case

Former Chester County Sheriff Carolyn "Bunny" Welsh entered a no-contest plea to theft charges in March.

Carolyn "Bunny" Welsh, former Chester County sheriff, arriving at the Chester County Justice Center with her lawyer, Geoffrey Richard Johnson, in West Chester on Wednesday.
Carolyn "Bunny" Welsh, former Chester County sheriff, arriving at the Chester County Justice Center with her lawyer, Geoffrey Richard Johnson, in West Chester on Wednesday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Citing his client’s 20 years of service as Chester County sheriff, an attorney for Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh asked a judge for leniency Wednesday as she faced sentencing in a fraud case involving the office’s K-9 unit.

“This would be an utterly unextraordinary case if Ms. Welsh were not the former sheriff,” Geoffrey Richard Johnson said. “As such, this drew outsized attention.”

Johnson said Welsh, 77, had been “pilloried digitally’' by the media in the months since prosecutors charged her with theft, 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.

But Chester County Senior Judge Joseph Mandenspacher agreed that Welsh had an otherwise stellar record as a public official, but noted that her actions in the criminal case required ”restorative sanctions.’' He ordered her to reimburse the county for nearly $17,000 improperly paid to the deputies during her tenure, as well as an additional $2,500 fine.

Her live-in boyfriend and longtime subordinate, Harry McKinney, 65, faced similar charges for diverting about $4,000 meant for the unit to cover personal expenses. He also was ordered Wednesday to reimburse the county.

Both Welsh and McKinney entered no-contest pleas in March, acknowledging the facts of the case as outlined by prosecutors without admitting guilt.

Welsh, a prominent longtime Republican in the county who served as a delegate to the party’s national convention in 2016, did not seek reelection in 2019. McKinney retired around the same time.

» READ MORE: Grand jury seeks financial records of former Chester County sheriff questioned for overtime spending

The charges against them 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 state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office, citing a conflict of interest because he had donated to the K-9 fund in the past.

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, court records show.

Additionally, Welsh 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.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Johnson, Welsh’s attorney, said she had received permission from the county solicitor to fund the K-9 unit this way, and noted that multiple county officials had attended the fund-raisers over the years without complaint.

But Deputy Attorney General Brian Zarallo noted that public officials should be held to a higher standard, especially in matters involving the use of public money.

“These deputies were not volunteers,” he said. “They were reimbursed on the side with taxpayer funds that were simply not intended for that.’'

» READ MORE: Chester County controller takes sheriff to court, seeking refund of $67K in overtime

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 asserted they were a way for Welsh to pad her household income and help “spike” retirement benefits for McKinney, with whom she has lived for 15 years. That case is ongoing.