VALPARAISO — Former Portage Clerk-Treasurer and Democratic mayoral candidate Chris Stidham pleaded guilty Friday morning to allegations of misusing his position as the city’s top fiscal officer in 2015 and 2016 to illegally pay tens of thousands of dollars in city funds to companies registered to his then-girlfriend and current wife, Rachel E. Glass.
Stidham, who appeared via a video conference call with the court, pleaded guilty to an amended felony count of conflict of interest as opposed to the original felony charge of official misconduct, according to the proposed plea agreement.
He faces supervised probation rather than jail time, but will be required to pay back $56,565 in restitution, which includes the cost of a state audit, according to the proposed agreement.
A big issue at stake during sentencing will be whether Stidham, 37, will be labeled as a felon. The proposed plea calls for prosecutors and the defense to argue whether the judgment will be entered as a misdemeanor instead at the time of sentencing.
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Porter Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Clymer took the proposed plea agreement under consideration and scheduled an in-person sentencing for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 22.
Special Prosecutor Stanley Levco, a former county prosecutor and judge from Evansville, said he prefers the sentencing to occur in-person, but voiced concern about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The defense said Stidham is "anxious to get his life figured out" and face the unanswered questions that await him.
"At this point, we don't know how long COVID is going to last and Mr. Stidham has a right to be sentenced," Clymer said about potential delays due to the threat of the coronavirus.
Faced with this case and the federal conviction and pending bribery trial of former Republican Mayor James Snyder, city attorney Dan Whitten said Friday on behalf of Portage, "It's an unfortunate situation all around. Mr. Stidham needs to answer for his misconduct and the residents of Portage need to be made whole. We are happy for the taxpayers of our city that this is coming to an end."
The allegations said Stidham paid the city funds to Glass in 2015 and 2016.
She is not accused of any wrongdoing in the case.
Stidham served two terms as clerk-treasurer before losing a primary battle last year for mayor to fellow Democrat Sue Lynch, who went on to unseat Republican John Cannon for the city's top job.
Stidham had denied all wrongdoing, claiming he was a victim of a political smear.
Snyder, who was found guilty last year of federal tax violations and faces an upcoming bribery trial stemming from his time in office, first appointed a committee of city investigators to look into allegations of misconduct in Stidham's office three years ago. Cannon resumed the investigation last year.
"On behalf of the bipartisan committee we are grateful to the work of the State investigators in this case," Cannon said in a prepared statement issued Friday. "We believe justice will be done and Stidham will be given a felony conviction so that he can’t run for office again or defraud clients."
"Thankfully the taxpayers of the City of Portage will be getting (their) stolen money back," he said.
The mayor’s committee discovered records showing Stidham had made questionable use of public funds to three vendors: Keeping the Books, E.R.G Advisors and Paramount Technology Solutions — all established under the name of Rachel Glass — without the approval of the Board of Public Works, a panel of the mayor’s advisers.
City investigators contend the three vendors were shell corporations with Valparaiso addresses for two houses and a United Parcel Service store.
State Board of Accounts auditors concluded from their own probe Stidham paid vendors, associated with his wife, $8,000 in 2016 to assist the city in routine confirmation of the accuracy of the city’s financial records by comparing them to bank account records.
But state auditors found the bank reconciliations for which the city paid $8,000 in 2016 weren’t performed until 2018, two years later.
State auditors allege the city had no written contracts with the three vendors associated with Stidham’s wife officially setting the term of services the city expected or the rates she would be paid.
The report states, “It is our position that the City paid for services not received (or approved by the city’s Board of Works.)"
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