A dispute is brewing in Chester County, with tensions running high among county officials over how much money is being thrown to the dogs.

Earlier this month, Controller Margaret Reif issued a subpoena to Sheriff Carolyn "Bunny" Welsh, seeking to examine the finances of the K-9 unit operated by the Sheriff's Office, and supported largely by grant money and donations.

Weeks later, the probe has plodded forward, with Reif contending that her office has had to sift through an incomplete set of financial records from the last nine years, the period before a nonprofit was formed to handle the unit's fund-raising efforts. Those statements, she said, indicate that the unit received "hundreds of thousands of dollars" that passed through an account managed by county employees.

Welsh has said her office is fully cooperating with the probe despite her "grave concerns" about the audit's objectivity.

"I think it's unfortunate that this was not handled differently," Welsh said. "Because now, these actions have created a confrontational situation that I felt was unnecessary."

This is the first time in recent memory that an elected official in Chester County has subpoenaed a colleague. And it has spawned accusations of partisan motivation: Reif is a Democrat who took office in January. Welsh, a Republican and vocal supporter of President Trump, has held her position for 18 years.

Reif has fired back against those claims, which have been plastered across the pages of local newspapers.

Deputy Paul Bryant with his cadaver dog, Don, at the Chester County Sheriff’s Office in March 2017. The unit has won national awards for its work in cadaver recovery and narcotics detection.
David Swanson / File Photograph
Deputy Paul Bryant with his cadaver dog, Don, at the Chester County Sheriff’s Office in March 2017. The unit has won national awards for its work in cadaver recovery and narcotics detection.

"Since taking office, while fulfilling my duties pursuant to the county code, I have come across multiple issues that needed to be addressed in the Sheriff's Office," she said in a statement.  "I didn't go to the press, but rather sat down with their office to work out ways to correct the problems. It is not now, nor has it ever been, my intention to use my job as a political tool.  Campaigns are for politics, governing is not."

Reif said her concerns with the K-9 unit were catalyzed by a tip to her office about "improper spending." She later discovered that similar tips had been sent to her predecessor, Norman MacQueen, a Republican, but that no investigation had been initiated.

So, Reif contacted Welsh earlier in the summer, asking for records for the K-9 unit's finances. Welsh initially agreed to cooperate, Reif said, but later sent a letter saying her office couldn't comply with the request.

To hear Welsh's staff tell it, that refusal came from the belief that Reif didn't have the authority to audit money that didn't come from the county's general fund. And because the K-9 unit has always been run on donations, including in-kind charity from veterinarians, officials in the Sheriff's Office believed there were no grounds for an audit.

If Chester County were to take on the expense of the K-9 unit, Welsh said, it would put a $100,000 annual strain on the county's budget, based on current expenses.

Because the fund-raising has been handled by county employees, and included events that used county resources, Reif said, she could use her authority to audit the account. So, the subpoena was issued, asking for bank statements, lists of assets, contracts, receipts, and other records.

In response, Welsh asked the head of the nonprofit Friends of the Chester County Sheriff's K-9 Unit if it would be willing to hand over some those records, according to Dawson R. Muth, solicitor for Welsh's office. Last week, staff from the Controller's Office began sifting through the first batch of the documents.

Deputy Thomas Miller works with Cento, a bomb-sniffing German shepherd, as they walk around the Chester County Courthouse in 2006. Cento was one of the first two dogs acquired by the Sheriff’s Office when the K-9 unit was formed.
Bob Williams / File Photograph
Deputy Thomas Miller works with Cento, a bomb-sniffing German shepherd, as they walk around the Chester County Courthouse in 2006. Cento was one of the first two dogs acquired by the Sheriff’s Office when the K-9 unit was formed.

"She has nothing to hide. The sheriff has played by the rules for nine years, and now the controller wants to change the rules," Muth said. "This money was raised by fund-raisers — it's not secret, it's not hidden. And all of a sudden it's now subject to an audit by the county controller."

From about 2009 onward, employees in the Sheriff's Office seemed to be managing those finances, according to Reif. An initial review of the documents Welsh produced shows that members of her staff had signing authority, and that all checks and statements were mailed to her office in West Chester.

Still, Welsh said, the people managing the account don't report to her directly. She added that they began the process of forming a nonprofit to handle the fund-raising process about a year ago.

In February, the Friends of the Chester County Sheriff's K-9 Unit registered with the Department of State and was granted nonprofit status a few months later. State records list Brad DeSando as the incorporator. DeSando is a corporal in the Sheriff's Office.

The K-9 unit was formed in 2006, with grant money helping to acquire two bomb-sniffing dogs. Despite being initially "unsuccessful," according to Welsh, the unit grew in reputation and acclaim, winning national awards in 2016 for cadaver recovery and narcotics detection.

Today, the unit has nine active dogs, with three more in training. It's the largest K-9 unit in the region operated by a sheriff's office. Most, including Philadelphia's, have no more than three dogs.

Welsh says the size of her office's unit has more to do with a declining trend in local K-9 units in Chester County. Her office's dogs support 57 law enforcement agencies, of which only two, police at Lincoln and West Chester Universities, have dogs. The K-9 unit, she said, fields about 100 requests a year from different agencies.

In 2016, the county organized a K-9 training academy, with members of the unit providing services to other law enforcement agencies in the region. The academy, the only one of its kind in the Philadelphia area, is a source of income for the county, according to Welsh. But she noted that the revenue goes into the general fund, not back to her unit.

"I'm extremely proud of this K-9 unit and its development over the last few years," Welsh said. "You cannot measure the value of these dogs."