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Jennings official charged with felony theft, misconduct

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A Jennings County commissioner, charged with theft and official misconduct, turned himself in Monday at the county jail.

Robert R. Willhite, 61, was released from jail after posting a $1,055 cash bond, the Jennings County Sheriff Department said.

Willhite said “I’m not guilty” of the Class D felony charges during a brief telephone interview Monday.

The Commiskey man is accused of having a Jennings County highway department truck driver deliver a 14-ton load of county-owned sand worth $262 to his church, Jennings County Prosecutor Alan Marshall said.

Court documents indicate the sand was delivered Aug. 8, 2013, near the United Christian Church volleyball court. The employee was told by his supervisor that the sand was to be charged to the county and Willhite would reimburse the county, according to court documents.

Willhite told police that he knew the county had hauled gravel and sand to other churches and organizations, so he asked that a load also be hauled to his church. He was chairman of the board for United Christian Church, according to court documents.

The commissioner said he believed United Christian would be sent a bill, as had been past practice with other churches, he told investigators, adding he did not know that a bill had not been sent.

Willhite told investigators that commissioners sign a cover sheet to approve stacks of invoices, and that since looking at all of them would take a great deal of time, the commissioners ask the auditor’s office to let them know if anything looks out of the ordinary.

Willhite told police the missing payment was the result of a misunderstanding.

The case was turned over to Indiana State Police investigators, who returned their findings to Marshall in December. Marshall returned it to ISP detectives for more information, and the case was returned to him in mid-January, he said. Criminal charges against Willhite were filed Thursday.

United Christian Church, State Road 250 near County Road 800 West, did reimburse the county for the sand, after the investigation was substantially completed late last year, the prosecutor said.

The matter became a criminal offense because Willhite is accused of using taxpayer-funded equipment to haul county-owned materials to a private entity, Willhite’s church, using a county employee on county time, Marshall said.

Willhite’s attorney, Mark Dove, said his client denies all wrongdoing and looks forward to being vindicated at trial.

“He hasn’t done anything wrong,” Dove said.

Willhite, a Republican, represents District 1 in Jennings County and was re-elected in 2012, according to Matt Sporleder, commissioners’ president. Prior to that, Willhite served 12 years as a commissioner, from 1996 to 2008, with one four-year break, from 2008 to 2012, according to the Jennings County Clerk’s office.

Willhite said he could not answer whether he will continue to serve as commissioner while the charges are pending. State law requires that any public official convicted of a felony be removed from office.

The next Jennings County commissioners meeting is 6:30 p.m. Feb. 13 at the county governmental offices building.

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