Hidden camera found in county office

By Aimee Hancock

Miami Valley Today

TROY — The Miami County Sheriff’s Office recently closed an investigation into the discovery of a secret surveillance camera hidden in the wall of a Safety Building office. No charges have been filed.

According to sheriff’s office documents, Detective Lt. Jason Moore began an investigation in early December 2020 after Sheriff Dave Duchak was informed by Miami County Commissioners that a hidden camera had been discovered in a wall of the human resources director’s office.

Prosecuting Attorney Anthony Kendell, in a letter to Moore, called the situation “concerning” and indicative of “unadulterated corruption.”

“On its simplest level, this would be an illegal wiretapping case since the camera in question had audio capabilities,” Kendell said. “However, there is no evidence of any description left on the server that would indicate that any conversations were surreptitiously captured by the camera’s microphone.

“And since many of the participants in this descpicable display of corruption and misuse of power have developed amnesia and/or selective memory, it appears that no criminal charges will be forthcoming unless and until further evidence is developed in this particular matter.”

The discovery and subsequent investigation has led to the resignation of the county’s IT Director Matt Watkins, as well as Commissioners Administrator Leigh Williams.

In September 2020, then-HR Director Tammie Hoover had been placed on administrative leave by commissioners and ultimately terminated a short time later. Miami Valley Today on Friday requested the termination letter and personnel file of Hoover as part of a public records request to commissioners with no response as of Sunday.

According to Moore’s 17-page investigation report, in the process of cleaning out Hoover’s office, commissioner Greg Simmons and facilities manager Chris Johnson had observed a camera hidden behind a wall vent.

The report states Johnson claimed knowledge that the camera had been placed in the wall “several years ago” by Watkins at the direction of then-commissioner Bud O’Brien. According to Sheriff Duchak, the report states, current commissioners Ted Mercer and Greg Simmons, as well as now-retired commissioner Jack Evans, were said to have had no knowledge of the camera.

In a formal police interview conducted on Dec. 9, Watkins stated the secret camera was installed sometime in 2015. Watkins said he had received a phone call from “either Leigh (Williams) or Commissioner Bud O’Brien” and was requested to meet with them.

During this meeting, Watkins said he was told by O’Brien there was information either being “leaked” or “taken” out of the storage in Hoover’s office, the report states. O’Brien then reportedly asked Watkins if there was any way to know who was coming in and out of the office’s storage room, to which Watkins stated the only way to know for sure would be to place a camera in the hallway.

According to Watkins, the report states, O’Brien requested the camera installation and placement to be done quickly and discreetly because “he did not want anyone to know the camera was there.”

Given that a camera could not be purchased in a timely manner with approval from the county Data Board, Watkins said “against his better judgment,” he purchased a consumer-grade surveillance camera from Walmart using his own money. Watkins then went to Lowe’s and purchased a furnace return air grate.

According to the report, Watkins went into the HR office on a Saturday while the office was empty to place the camera. Installation included cutting a hole in the drywall just below the ceiling line, placing the camera behind the drywall and covering the hole with the purchased air grate. The camera’s cable was run into the ceiling and over to the IT room then plugged directly into a switch on the server.

According to Watkins, the camera came with software that he only installed on his county-owned laptop, adding that his laptop had to be plugged into the county network in order to access the camera footage.

In his comments to Miami Valley Today, Watkins said the camera was used for a short time and its purpose was only to view access to the storage room. Watkins said the camera was subsequently “forgotten about” and sat in the wall unused for years.

“The camera was chosen because it installed with a single cable, and the microphone was an unintended feature that was never used,” he said. “Video recordings were 3 seconds max, were only triggered by motion, and were never viewed ‘live.’ It basically took pictures when someone walked by the door and that was all.”

Watkins’ county-owned laptop, which stored all images captured from the camera, was eventually retired and destroyed years ago as part of the county’s technology rotation and no footage remains, he said.

On Dec. 23, 2020, Moore contacted former commissioner O’Brien, who stated he had no knowledge of the camera. He referred all additional questions to his attorney, the report states.

Miami Valley Today reached out to O’Brien for additional comments, however, he stated he has no comment at this time.

On Dec. 10, 2020, Moore interviewed facilities manager Chris Johnson, who confirmed Watkins claim that O’Brien had requested the installation of a hidden camera in Hoover’s office.

Johnson further stated O’Brien had told him Hoover had suspected someone had been removing information or items from her office.

According to Johnson, O’Brien had initially requested he install a covert camera, however, Johnson suggested it should be installed by someone in the IT department.

On Dec. 14, 2020, Moore interviewed Hoover regarding her knowledge of the camera. Although Moore had been informed by Duchak that current commissioners, and retired commissioner Evans, had no knowledge of the camera before its discovery, Hoover stated she had initially been called to the Commissioners’ Meeting Room, where she met with then-commissioners O’Brien, Richard Cultice, and Jack Evans, along with commissioner administrator Leigh Williams, all of whom were present during discussion of the camera.

During this meeting, Hoover said O’Brien indicated a suspicion that a human resources employee Teresa Gross had provided information to an unknown person that could only have been learned from information stored in Hoover’s office.

Hoover said she was never told what or whose information was given, nor to whom it may have been given. Further, no interviewee described in Moore’s report was able to disclose what information may have been leaked.

On Dec. 29, 2020, Teresa Gross was interviewed by Moore, during which Gross stated she was never questioned, accused, or spoken to about anything related to Hoover’s office or removing information.

Additionally, Gross indicated she felt O’Brien did not like her, adding that she felt he “bullied” her on multiple occasions and that she believed he would have been looking for any reason to terminate her employment with the county.

On Jan. 5 of this year, former commissioner Cultice was interviewed by Moore. Cultice informed Moore he had “little to no memory” of a camera being installed or the meeting Hoover had described. Further, Cultice said he had no knowledge of any complaint regarding removed or “leaked” information from the HR office.

Cultice did state he believed O’Brien had a problem with Gross’ job performance around the time in question, but added that he “could not think of any reason” that a hidden camera would assist in any way in the evaluation of Gross’ job performance.

Following his investigation, Moore presented the facts and evidence to Miami County Prosecuting Attorney Anthony Kendell for review, after which Kendell concluded there was not enough probable cause to proceed with criminal charges.

In his letter to Moore, Kendell said Moore’s investigation was “top notch,” but that the findings do not “rise to the level of a criminal prosecution at the present time.”

“As much of this situation may disgust me on a personal level, the fact remains both the United States and the Ohio Constitutions, as well as statutory law, make clear that I do not have a good-faith basis on which to proceed with respect to a criminal matter,” Kendell stated in the letter.

According to Moore, the investigation has been closed pending any additional evidence.

Requests for comment from former commissioner administrator Leigh Williams had gone unanswered as of press time, though during her interview with Moore, she claimed to have no knowledge of the camera.

Following Williams’ sudden resignation last week, facilities manager Chris Johnson has been named interim administrator.