As Eyewitness News reported earlier this month, there were numerous red flags with the Union County Fiscal Court’s purchase of six pieces of equipment allegedly tied to a theft ring. That equipment, totaling more than $100,000, was seized by law enforcement on New Years Eve, leaving the taxpayers on the hook for equipment the county no longer has. Eyewitness News has uncovered additional records and information suggesting how some of the equipment was used and by whom. Additionally, purchasing records suggest county officials skirted state model procurement laws to ensure some county jobs weren’t bid out by the Fiscal Court.
Since Eyewitness News uncovered the equipment’s red flags in a Feb. 5th story, Union County Attorney Brucie Moore has apparently started the process of making a claim with KACo, the county’s insurance carrier, in an effort to possibly recoup some of the $100,000 the county spent on the equipment.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s investigation continues because the equipment was taken across state lines.
Through a series of records requests, Eyewitness News has attempted to follow the paper trail leading to how and why the Fiscal Court and Judge Executive Jody Jenkins purchased the reportedly stolen equipment. According to purchasing records, the county purchased the equipment from Jason Habermel of Evansville. He did business as ‘Habermel Equipment.’
“We purchased the equipment through what we could consider a reputable company or group,” said Judge Executive Jody Jenkins.
However, according to state and local records, Habermel Equipment was neither a company nor a group.
According to the Kentucky and Indiana Secretaries of State and the Vanderburgh County Recorder’s Office, there is no documentation that supports the official existence of Habermel Equipment. Even if a company is doing business under a fictitious name — or DBA — the owner must file paperwork with the proper county and state.
The county’s business transactions with Habermel began in early 2014 and abrubtly stopped six months later. In all, the county purchased six pieces of equipment and two attachments totalling more than $100,000. According to purchasing records, every piece of equipment was purchased for less than $20,000 a piece. Any purchases above the $20,000 threshold are required to be bid out by the Fiscal Court, according to Kentucky’s model procurement laws.
However, according to the leading heavy equipment trading websites, the equipment the county purchased commonly fetches anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000.
“They probably sold them to people at a very discounted price. The people may or may not have thought something was up with it. Those are things that we’re working through,” said Sheriff Dave Wedding said at the January 13 press conference announcing the arrests of Thomas and Andrew Elpers, the alleged kingpins of the theft ring. “We need to figure if other people will be charged with purchasing some of this stolen equipment.”
Sheriff Wedding also said the serial numbers on the equipment — similar to a VIN number on a car — were definitively altered or missing altogether. According to the picture of one serial number obtained by Eyewitness News, the serial number is almost indiscernable.
The equipment should have been thoroughly inspected by Union County Engineer Von Burklow but it’s unclear if that actually happened. Repeated attempts to contact Burklow for comment were unsuccessful.
Additionally, new records obtained by Eyewitness News show the Fiscal Court approved a purchase from Habermel described as a “2013 Caterpillar Tooth Bucket Reimbursement.” A tooth bucket is a scooping device that attaches to the front of the machine. However, that piece of equipment already came with a tooth bucket, according to law enforcement sources who spoke on the condition of anomynity.
Jenkins hand-wrote a check to Habermel for $3750 from the Union County Economic Development Corporation, according to purchasing records. Business filings list Jenkins as a director of the non-profit organization. A week later, the county reimbursed the Union County Economic Development Corporation — also known as Union County First — for the full amount, according to purchasing records.
Jenkins has previously stated that he nor the Fiscal Court knowingly purchased equipment that had been reported stolen.
“Oh no it was nothing like that,” Jenkins said in a mid-January interview. “It was bought in good faith.”
However, additional records obtained by Eyewitness News cast further doubt on that assertion.
Law enforcement sources said Thomas and Andrew Elpers knew Habermel through business dealings when Habermel worked for Garzo Tire, a Terre Haute based company. The Elpers owned a landscaping company and purchased tires through Garzo Tire, law enforcement sources said.
According to his social media profiles, Habermel worked at Garzo Tire from August 2013 through December 2014.
In mid-February 2014, Union County started doing business with Garzo Tire, according to invoices obtained by Eyewitness News through the Freedom of Information Act. Those invoices list Habermel as the county’s salesperson.
The county’s business relationship with Garzo Tire started within days of when the reportedly stolen equipment started being bought by the Fiscal Court and Judge Jenkins, according to purchasing records.
Garzo Tire itself is a legitimate company and has not been implicated of any wrongdoing in any way, law enforcement sources said.
Speaking on the condition that they would not be named, sources from within Union County government report seeing Thomas Elpers at the county road department on numerous occasions.
Throughout the controversy, most of the questions have centered around how the county government could buy reportedly stolen equipment. But new records and new information raises further questions of how the equipment was used and by whom.
“We weren’t using it per se,” Jenkins said. “We have a reciprocal agreement with the cities here within the county. If we have equipment that is useful to them that we’re not using, they use it. It was used by some of the smaller cities that needed ditch work and stuff like that.”
On the day detectives came to seize the equipment, none of it was at the road department, law enforcement sources said. But instead of being returned by employees of the county or neighboring cities, some of the equipment was returned by private citizens, law enforcement said.
Both law enforcement and Union County government sources believe some of the equipment was being used by private individuals, namely Steve Eckels. According to business filings, Eckels owns E&E Services LLC, a company registered in Waverly. On the day the equipment was seized, it was Eckels who is believed to have been in possession of two pieces of equipment, law enforcement sources said.
According to documents obtained by Eyewitness News, Eckels’ business, E&E Services, was involved in a number of lucrative county jobs. Between January 2013 and August 2014, E&E Services took home more than $200,000, according to purchasing records. The projects included mowing county cemeteries, renovating the Uniontown Ballpark and renovations at Moffit Lake. According to purchasing records and corresponding Fiscal Court meeting minutes, these projects did not exceed $20,000. Therefore, the projects weren’t bid out by the Fiscal Court.
On a voucher dated October 15th, 2013, E&E Services began cleaning out Moffit Lake on October 7th and continued through October 13th. The voucher was for $6,885.
A voucher dated October 18th, shows the renovations continued on October 14th and October 15th. The bill was for more than $2700, according to purchasing records.
A voucher dated October 30th shows the work continued from October 16th through October 19th. The price on that voucher was for $6,660.
Lastly, a voucher dated December 13th was for the work done two months prior on October 21st through October 24th.
With the only day missing (October 20th) being a Sunday, the vouchers appear to be all related to the same project completed during a two week stretch. However, instead of being included all in one voucher, it is broken into four separate vouchers. Combining all four vouchers exceeds $20,000.
A state spokesperson tells Eyewitness News that, generally, splitting up a single project to ensure that it’s under $20,000 is most likely against the state’s model procurement laws.
However, additional records suggest it would happen again the following year at the same location involving the same business — E&E Services.
E&E Services began working on water and electric lines at Moffit Lake on March 23rd, 2014. The worrk continued through the end of June, according to purchasing records. The project appears on seven different vouchers and has a combined cost of $37,235.
Eckels did not return calls for comment.
Officials from the FBI said they cannot comment on an ongoing federal investigation. However, anyone with information is urged to contact the agency at 812-434-8262.