Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Former Chester County sheriff Carolyn Welsh charged with stealing taxpayer funds

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As sheriff in Chester County, Pa., Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh was among President Trump’s earliest boosters in the key swing state. In 2016, Welsh attended the Republican National Convention as a delegate, spoke at rallies and even helped her ailing mother cast an absentee ballot for Trump from her deathbed.

After Trump’s win, Welsh made multiple trips to the White House, where she often nabbed a spot at Trump’s side as he met with other law enforcement officers.

“They seated me right next to the president. It was wonderful,” Welsh told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017. “He was very open and very gracious.”

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Now Welsh, a 76-year-old Republican who left office last year after two decades as sheriff, has been charged with theft for an alleged scheme to charge taxpayers for volunteer work benefiting a K-9 unit. Welsh’s boyfriend, Harry McKinney, a former officer in the department, is also charged with using donations to the K-9 unit to pay his personal expenses.

“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,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) said in a statement sent to The Washington Post.

Chester County court records show Welsh and McKinney, 62, were each charged with theft and diversion of services on Tuesday. Attorneys for the pair didn’t immediately return messages from The Washington Post. Welsh’s attorney, Geoffrey Richard Johnson, declined to comment to the Inquirer, while McKinney’s attorney, Robert J. Donatoni, told the paper the charges “speak for themselves.”

Welsh broke barriers in 2000 as the first female sheriff in Chester County, a then-heavily Republican area that includes Philadelphia suburbs.

The daughter of a local politician in nearby Upper Darby, Pa., Welsh had studied music before turning to law enforcement, the Inquirer reported in 2003. As sheriff, she won national recognition for breaking into the male-dominated ranks and brought a wry sense of humor to the job, keeping a bowl of candy eyeballs on her desk and playing keyboards at the county prison.

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With the backing of the local GOP, she repeatedly coasted to reelection, often running unopposed. In 2016, she hitched her wagon early to Trump, speaking at Philadelphia-area rallies and meeting with Ivanka and Eric Trump.

“The energy and the enthusiasm for Mr. Trump was something I have never seen before,” she said after his victory that November. “It was truly a movement.”

One month after Trump’s inauguration, she was among 10 sheriffs who met the president at the White House. She returned in January 2019 for another roundtable discussion, where Trump introduced her as a “friend of mine for a long time, from the beginning” before she discussed her county’s problems with fentanyl.

In November 2019, after Welsh declined to run for another term, she was succeeded by a Democrat, Fredda Maddox. By then, Welsh was already facing accusations of impropriety.

Chester County Controller Margaret Reif, a Democrat, spent two years delving into the department’s finances, reported the Daily Local, a Chester County newspaper, before producing an audit questioning how nearly $200,000 in donations were spent. Reif later sued Welsh in county court, alleging she had improperly given McKinney $67,000 in overtime — directly benefiting herself in the process, since she had lived with him for 15 years.

Welsh argued in court filings that the overtime payments were proper and called Reif’s claims a political “smear,” the Inquirer reported. That civil case is still open.

On Tuesday, prosecutors alleged her and McKinney’s conduct was criminal. Welsh let deputies do volunteer work for K-9 unit fundraisers while still on the clock, prosecutors say, and also let deputies accrue time off for volunteer work done outside their work hours. She also placed McKinney in charge of the K-9 unit and allowed him full control over its donations, according to a criminal complaint; McKinney allegedly used those funds to pay for boarding, medicine and other expenses for a family pet.

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“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 said in his statement.

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