Union County is far from the biggest county in the Commonwealth but it remains under the biggest microscope. The Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to investigate the county’s purchase of stolen equipment tied to a now dismantled equipment theft ring out of Vanderburgh County. State auditors are taking a closer look at the county’s financial records. Additionally, new records obtained by Eyewitness News raise questions about the county’s rental of two pieces of equipment in 2013.
At the Union County Road Department, every piece of equipment has a purpose and a task. There are machines that dig, clear and level. However, for six months in 2013, purchasing records show the county rented two pieces of equipment for an entirely different purpose.
According to purchasing records obtained by Eyewitness News through the state’s open records laws, the Union County Fiscal Court and Judge Executive Jody Jenkins approved the rental of a Komatsu PC 200LC from a Brandeis location in Evansville. The full-size excavator is typically used for the digging of trenches, landscaping and other heavy construction work. According to the invoice, the rental began May 3rd, 2013 and continued through early June.
The rental cost the taxpayers more than $10,000 paid for out of the county road fund, records show. Several Union County sources, who wished to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation, find this rental questionable because the road department already had three similar pieces of equipment that can accomplish the same task.
Those three pieces of equipment were operational and available, sources said.
The purchasing records for the rental are completely vague, lacking any details that specify what the equipment was used for, where the equipment was used and who was using it. According to the invoices, Judge Executive Jody Jenkins is listed under the ‘Ship To’ column and the job site is listed as ‘Union County.’ The rentals were approved by the Fiscal Court and the checks were signed by Judge Jenkins.
After a recent fiscal court meeting, Judge Jenkins insisted he couldn’t comment because he couldn’t remember the rental or was unfamiliar with it.
“I’d have to go back and look,” Judge Jenkins said.
According to Union County and law enforcement sources, the rented excavator wasn’t used by a county employee and it wasn’t used for a county project.
The rented excavator was used by one of the judge executive’s closes friends, Jeff Ratley, who also lives in Union County. Ratley, who is an in-law to Jenkins, owns or is affiliated with a rock yard and trucking business on Highway 60 in Waverly.
Several attempts to reach Ratley for comment were unsuccessful.
Several corroborating Union County and law enforcement sources, for the duration of the nearly two month rental, Ratley used the excavator at his business for a period of time before using it to clear his private property on the outskirts of Morganfield. Ratley was permitted to use the taxpayer-funded rental to slope the hillsides on his property, clear brush and trees and complete other construction-related work.
Two months after renting the excavator, the Union County Fiscal court rented another piece of equipment from Brandeis.
It’s important to note that Brandeis has not been implicated of any wrongdoing.
According to purchasing records, the county began renting a Bobcat T-650 compact track loader on August 23rd, 2013. The rental would be continuously renewed by the fiscal court until November 14th, 2013, purchasing records state.
That’s nearly three months, totaling $10,689.50, according to purchasing records. Again, Union County sources say the county had similar pieces of equipment that were in use and operational.
According to the voucher claims, the Bobcat rental was for the ‘Higginson Henry Project.’ Higginson-Henry is a state owned, state operated fish and wildlife area (FWA), near Morganfield.
The equipment was used to clear several miles of horse trails before the Labor Day weekend, sources said. The purchase order tied to the transaction wasn’t signed by Judge Executive Jody Jenkins, any member of the road department or any other county employee. According to the purchase order, it was signed by Steve Eckels, a private citizen who owns and operates E&E Services in Corydon. Eckels is one of Jenkins’ closest friends.
As Eyewitness News has previously reported, Eckels has repeatedly received preferential treatment when it comes to county contracts and county projects. None of the jobs that Eckels was awarded were publicly bid out by the Fiscal Court because the projects were for under $20,000. Sometimes, a single project would be broken up into several smaller portions to ensure they all remained under $20,000.
Eckels and a crew of several men used the Bobcat rental at Higginson-Henry for four-and-a-half days to complete the project. However, the rental spanned three months.
It’s unclear what the rented Bobcat was being used for in the remainder of that rental period but it appears that the Bobcat wasn’t used by a county employee nor was it used for a county project.
Many have alleged that Eckels used this taxpayer-funded rental to help supplement his private business.
Additional records raise additional questions about this so-called Higginson-Henry project. Through the state’s open records laws, Eyewitness News requested, ‘any and all records related to the construction, installation and maintenance of horse trails at Higginson Henry from 2007 to 2015.’
The request turned up one result: a proposed agreement between the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Union County Fiscal Court that was drafted in 2009. The agreement, if signed, would span 25 years until the year 2034. However, it appears the agreement was never signed by Judge Jenkins; it remains a piece of paper without any legal binding.
In a response to Eyewitness News’ records request, the records custodian said, “The department has searched its files and was not provided a signed copy of the agreement after it was sent to the judge’s executive’s office. Therefore, we are not sure if the agreement was ever fully executed.”
Why was the taxpayer-funded, rented Komatsu used by a private citizen on private land? Why the second rental used on state property for a project that lacked any legal agreement between the county and state? When asked the first time, Judge Jenkins said he couldn’t comment because, ‘he’d have to go back and look.’
At the next fiscal court meeting two weeks later, Judge Jenkins chose not to comment, ducking into a closed-door meeting with the County Treasurer. After that 37 minute long meeting, Jenkins emerged but again refused to comment.