Judge finds Talbot sheriff guilty of misusing funds His hiring of friend raises new doubts

September 14, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

EASTON -- A Circuit Court judge declared yesterday that Talbot County Sheriff John J. Ellerbusch Jr. was guilty of misconduct in office for misusing more than $73,000 in department funds, a ruling that got the sheriff immediately suspended from his job.

But a surprise move by the sheriff has county officials and the state prosecutor's office wondering just how long Ellerbusch can be kept off the county payroll.

Two hours before his court appearance, Ellerbusch quietly hired a friend, former St. Michaels Police Chief Edward W. Keyton, to run the sheriff's office as chief deputy. Officials are worried that if Ellerbusch is not sent to prison when he is sentenced Thursday, Mr. Keyton could move to hire him to work in the sheriff's office in some capacity.

Ellerbusch, 37, serving his second four-year term in the elected office, was indicted in January by a county grand jury on four counts of theft, misconduct and perjury stemming from an investigation by the state prosecutor.

During a two-day hearing in which the grand jury heard testimony from dozens of potential witnesses, Mr. Keyton spoke on behalf of Ellerbusch even though he had not been summoned by prosecutors.

Mr. Keyton left the St. Michaels police force after a grand jury indicted him in 1991 on charges of electronic eavesdropping, conspiracy and misconduct in office. The state attorney general's office dropped the charges against him a year later.

L Yesterday, he and Ellerbusch declined to talk to a reporter.

Ellerbusch was accused of diverting to his personal use fees and donations meant for the Sheriff's Department, including some of the money sent to his office by federal officials after the 1989 conviction of Sandra Filbert Amos, an heiress and former Talbot County resident, for conspiring to distribute cocaine.

In a statement of facts read in court yesterday by Assistant State Prosecutor A. Thomas Krehely Jr., Ellerbusch was found to have misused $73,055 between August 1988 and September 1992.

Some of the money was used to pay the sheriff's personal credit card and insurance bills. It also paid for a fence and floodlights at his home in Trappe, a big-screen TV set, a used pickup truck and a class ring.

Harry M. Walsh Jr., Ellerbusch's lawyer, said the sheriff used some of the money to buy equipment for his deputies. He said his client regarded the money he took as loans he intended to repay.

"He did not believe he did anything criminal," Mr. Walsh said.

The case against Ellerbusch was scheduled to be presented before a jury yesterday, but last-minute talks ended in a plea agreement.

As a result, three of the counts were dropped, and Ellerbusch was found guilty of the single misconduct charge, a misdemeanor. If Judge J. Owen Wise, a visiting judge from neighboring Caroline County, accepts all terms of the agreement, Ellerbusch must make financial restitution of $5,000 to Talbot County through the state's Parole and Probation Division.

An additional civil judgment of $45,000 would be awarded to the county, meaning that local officials could take action to seize Ellerbusch's personal property if the money was not repaid.

The agreement leaves any prison sentence up to Judge Wise. A misconduct conviction is a common law offense in Maryland and carries no particular sentence, although Mr. Krehely said Ellerbusch could receive up to 15 years in prison.

Mr. Krehely said he accepted the plea arrangement because it accomplished the state's goals.

"Our primary concern was getting the process started to get this guy out of office," he said. "We didn't want to take any chances before a jury."

But with the surprise appointment of Mr. Keyton as chief deputy, it is unclear what the future holds for the sheriff.

"What's to prevent Keyton from hiring him?" asked Mr. Krehely. "As far as I know, there's nothing to prevent that."

With yesterday's ruling by Judge Wise, Ellerbusch is suspended from his $36,500-a-year job at least until his sentencing Thursday. Upon sentencing, he will automatically be suspended under Maryland law.

Only when an elected official fails through appeals to have the verdict overturned is he officially removed from office.

If Ellerbusch is removed from office, which could take months, his successor would be picked by the governor. In the meantime, the sheriff's office would be run by the chief deputy. The first opportunity for voters to elect a new sheriff will be in November 1994.

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