Smeiles says he did nothing wrong

Brock Harrington

Audits reveal official’s daughter’s education paid for by federal funds

Two weeks ago, the Portage County commissioner’s race was focused on the candidates’ experience. Larry Solak, the challenger, had never been a commissioner before, while Chris Smeiles was finishing his 20th year as a commissioner and seeking his sixth term.

But after a state audit revealed that four Portage County officials’ adult children, including Smeiles daughter, received federal funds to help pay for higher education, the campaign has shifted.

“The Plain Dealer reporter wrote a mean-spirited story that was politically charged and, quite frankly, was Election Day politics,” Smeiles said of Tuesday’s story in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

In 2006, Smeiles’ daughter Lisa received $11,939 to help pay for her tuition at Messiah College in Pennsylvania for her senior year. The money came through the Workforce Investment Act, which has funds shuttled to Geauga, Ashtabula and Portage counties, through an organization know as GAPP, Inc.

Money given to GAPP, a $3.5 million program, is supposed to be distributed to individuals who are lacking self-sufficiency or if they meet the definition of a low-income individual. In addition, GAPP also requires individuals to meet certain criteria if they wish to receive classroom training activities. A person may need training if they lack resources, such as money, savings and other employment.

Lisa Smeiles received $9,997 for tuition, and an additional $2,381.93 for other services, such as books and gas cards.

Smeiles said he encouraged his daughter to seek government assistance to help pay for her education, and GAPP was available. According to Smeiles, a committee of 32 members is responsible for picking certain schools for GAPP consideration. After the members select the schools, the list is sent to a board of three county commissioners for approval.

Smeiles admitted he was going to abstain from voting on the eligibility of his daughter’s school, along with 14 other schools seeking approval, but was forced to vote when only one other commissioner, former Ashtabula commissioner and current state representative Deborah Newcomb, appeared for the vote. If Smeiles had abstained, there would have been no quorum, meaning all of the schools would have been rejected, according to Smeiles.

The other schools up for consideration included Hiram College, City Driving Academy, Meditec, Inc. and Auburn Career Center. These schools became eligible training providers. The meeting lasted just 10 minutes.

“My only involvement was to routinely include the entire list of schools onto the eligibility list, one of which was my daughter’s college,” Smeiles said. “By the way, we’ve never turned down a college – all you have to do is ask and you’re on the list- so that was my one vote the reporter from The Plain Dealer was talking about.”

The Ohio state auditor’s office sent the county two audits of the program, but has yet to start investigating.

“Our office is certainly looking at these issues,” said Emily Frazee, a spokeswoman for the state’s auditor office. “We have not started an investigation.”

If the state feels that there was wrongdoing, then they will release a special audit for more information, but according to Frazee, that has yet to happen.

Whether Smeiles acted unethically will be determined at a later time, but with less than a week until Election Day, Solak promised he would make sure something similar to this never happens again.

“A lot of that money was intended for people in need,” Solak said. “It’s sad.”

Smeiles, however, said he took the proper steps to avoid any wrongdoing.

“This issue is two years old,” Smeiles said. “The issue was fine two years ago, it was fine a year ago, and now before Election Day, all of a sudden it’s a front-page story.”

Contact reporting public affairs reporter Brock Harrington at [email protected].