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Former Health Department Assistant Administrator innocent on all charges | News, Sports, Jobs

Linda Harris
VERDICT IS IN — Annette Stewart, the former Jefferson County Health Department assistant administrator who’d been accused of theft in office, tampering and falsification, and her attorney, Dennis McNamara, await the jury’s verdict Thursday.

STEUBENVILLE — A Jefferson County jury deliberated for a little more than two hours Thursday before finding former county Health Department Assistant Administrator Annette Stewart not guilty on all charges.

Stewart, 57, had been charged with theft in office, tampering with evidence and falsification. A fourth charge, unlawful interest in a public contract, was dismissed.

Prosecutors Anthony Cillo and Laura Dezort, both from the Ohio Attorney General’s office, had argued Stewart doctored the minutes of an April 25, 2017, board of health meeting to give herself a promotion and a $12-an-hour pay raise. One of the two men she said authorized the pay increase died two years ago, and the other was not able to testify due to cognitive decline, they noted.

“It boils down to who do you want to believe,” Dezort told them during her closing. “You have all the witnesses the state presented and, most importantly, you have the recording. You can hear what minutes were made and what minutes weren’t made. Compare that to a defendant who told you a dead man told her to do it and another man, unfortunately, in cognitive decline (couldn’t speak for himself.) You have to decide between the two versions.”

Dezort argued Stewart saw an opportunity to ease her family’s financial troubles and “took advantage of the situation,” reminding jurors witnesses who’d been at the meeting in its entirety said there was no discussion of giving her a promotion or pay raise.

“She used her office, she used her job, she used her responsibilities to make it happen. She falsified the documents and she stole that money from the board of health and the citizens and taxpayers of Jefferson County,” Dezort said.

But Defense Attorney Dennis McNamara countered, telling jurors just because Dezort said it “doesn’t make it so.” He argued that all she’d done was carry out the orders her bosses, the late Dr. Frank L. Petrola and Dr. Frank J. Petrola, had given her, pointing out she’d worked for the health department for 31 years.

“I would say she deserved that raise, but whether she did or not, she didn’t steal it,” he said. “She did her job. She’s not a criminal.”

Part of Stewart’s job was to record board meetings, and McNamara suggested the recording of the 2017 meeting prosecutors claimed was proof the board never voted on a pay raise or promotion for Stewart was actually damning to their case.

“Why would she make a recording and not delete it” if that was the case, McNamara asked. “She left it there, intact, nothing to hide. That’s not the behavior of an expert deceiver or someone as deceptive as they (claim).”

After hearing the verdict, Cillo and Dezort declined comment, citing department policy. Stewart grabbed McNamara’s hand, thanking him before exiting the common pleas courtroom of Judge Joseph Bruzzese.

McNamara, though, said he’s tried a lot of cases over the years, and “Winning is much more fun.”

“I’m extremely happy, very happy with it,” McNamara said. “I felt sorry for Annette — she’s had a couple hard years. Going through this was hard, and even though she’s retired, going forward with a felony conviction would be hard.”

McNamara said he wasn’t surprised by the jury’s decision, but he admits he was “a little nervous about it, relieved, frankly.”

“It was a pretty simple calculation,” he said. “Even though they might have spent hours and hours (listening) to witnesses, either she was told to do it or she wasn’t, either the two doctor Petrolas signed off or they didn’t. It was a pretty simple ‘Yes, I believe it’ or ‘No, I don’t’.”

McNamara also said he’s not sure it was a case of the tide turning, “as much as there was really no evidence she was guilty.”

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