Williams County Sheriff Steve Towns on Thursday was charged with three misdemeanors related to confidential child abuse reports Towns released online in October 2018.
The charges, filed in Bryan Municipal Court, include one count of improperly disclosing confidential information and two counts of improperly releasing child abuse reports.
The charges relate to investigations by the sheriff’s department into complaints against Bryan City Schools administration and the Williams County Department of Jobs and Family Services. The documents were initially made available for public download on Oct. 19, 2018, via a link on the Williams County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, and a public information link on the department’s website.
Those links were only active for a few hours, as the office later posted that documents would be made available through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The charges against the sheriff were announced in a prepared statement released Thursday by Special Williams County Prosecutor and Special Bryan City Attorney Mark R. Weaver and Assistant Special Prosecutor Ryan Stubenrauch. The investigation was conducted by the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
In the statement, Weaver said included in the hundreds of pages of documents posted by Towns “were at least two confidential reports of suspected child abuse made by medical professionals. In addition, at least one child victim was illegally identified in the internet posting made by the sheriff.”
Williams County Prosecutor Katie Zartman told The Bryan Times Thursday she requested the special prosecutor conduct an investigation after “requests from multiple people” who either live or work in Williams County. She declined to identify the people who made the requests except to say there were “more than three” and they included both public officials and private residents, and at least one member of law enforcement.
The special prosecutors charged Towns with one count of improperly disclosing confidential information in violation of Ohio Revised Code 102.03 (a first-degree misdemeanor) and two counts of improperly releasing child abuse reports in violation of ORC 2151.421 (both fourth-degree misdemeanors). If convicted, Towns faces a maximum possible penalty of seven months in jail and a fine of $1,250.
Weaver said public officials must follow the law and keep confidential any reports of suspected child abuse.
“While a sheriff has the right to conduct investigations or offer criticism of other government officials, there’s no right to publicly disclose these confidential reports — in fact it’s a crime to do so,” Weaver said.
Towns said posting the documents online was out of frustration that Williams County Job and Family Services and the county prosecutor’s office had at least twice declined to investigate allegations of child abuse, including a May 2012 incident in which a Bryan City Schools middle school art teacher showed sex toys to two minor female students at her home. In a second incident, Towns alleges a Williams County child was treated for injuries from domestic violence at a Hicksville Hospital but Williams County JFS declined to investigate.
Fred Lord, director of Williams County JFS, addressed the issue in an interview with The Bryan Times on Friday. (See related story beginning on Page 1.)
Weaver’s statement said the complaint will be served on Towns by mailed summons. Towns said late Thursday he had not yet been formally served with charges, which he called “a political hit job.”
“It’s illicit prosecution. It’s weaponized charges to go after an honest law enforcement official who stood up for the truth. I told the truth about something certain people at JFS and Bryan Schools didn’t want to talk about. It’s my duty to protect the children and make people aware of failures by (other agencies) who are supposed to protect our kids.”
Towns said he redacted the documents before posting them online with the intent to remove anything that could violate confidentiality laws.
“I tried to fully redact ... there was no malicious intent, but there is malicious prosecution,” Towns said.
“They’re more concerned about this than in pursuing the actual cases (of child abuse),” he said. He criticized the county JFS office, saying, “If other people had done their job we wouldn’t be here.”
He vowed to defend himself, “and while I’m at it, I’ll show (late county sheriff’s deputy) Mick Frisbie was a target (of the special prosecutor) too,” Towns said.
Weaver was also the special prosecutor when Frisbie was charged with felony perjury earlier this year. The charge stemmed from allegedly conflicting comments Frisbie made in regard to the officer-involved shooting death of John Anderson in June 2016 outside Anderson’s residence on U.S. 20, north of Montpelier.
Frisbie died May 24. Circumstances of his passing have not been officially reported.