Former Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh was charged with theft early Tuesday for allegedly allowing employees to improperly collect comp time for volunteering at fund-raisers for the office’s K-9 unit.

Her live-in boyfriend and former subordinate, Harry McKinney, faces similar charges, as well as allegations that he improperly diverted money meant for the unit to cover personal expenses.

Welsh, 76, was arraigned on theft and diversion of services charges along with McKinney, who served under her as a lieutenant during her 20-year tenure. Both were released without bail, pending a preliminary hearing in December.

“Bunny Welsh used her position of power for her and her partner Harry McKinney’s own personal gain instead of serving her community as she was elected to do,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement.

“Welsh and McKinney allegedly used public employees to perform work for private charity events both on and off-duty at the expense of Chester County, and McKinney then used those fundraised dollars to cover his own personal expenses,” Shapiro added.

Welsh and McKinney allowed sheriff’s office employees to complete “nongovernmental volunteer work” during their scheduled shifts for the county, and allowed them to accrue comp time for that work that they could use later, 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. However, McKinney used some of these funds for personal expenses, including grooming and medical care for his pet dog, the complaint said.

Harry McKinney, seen here in 2017, served as a lieutenant in the Chester County sheriff's office under his longtime girlfriend, Carolyn Welsh.
DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Harry McKinney, seen here in 2017, served as a lieutenant in the Chester County sheriff's office under his longtime girlfriend, Carolyn Welsh.

Welsh’s attorney, Geoffrey Richard Johnson, declined to comment at length on the charges. Robert J. Donatoni, McKinney’s attorney, said the criminal charges “speak for themselves.”

The charges come 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.

Last year, 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 all of the overtime he was paid. She has called the controller’s inquiries a misrepresentation of financial records and “a negative attempt to smear” her.

The controller’s inquiry was paused in November, after a statewide grand jury subpoenaed the sheriff’s office for payroll records, direct deposit information, routing numbers, and other information for bank accounts associated with the office between 2015 and 2019.

By then, Welsh — a prominent Republican who served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2016 — had announced she wasn’t seeking reelection. She was succeeded by Fredda Maddox, a Democrat who did not renew McKinney’s contract.