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County launches probe into equine program
June 24, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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At the conclusion of the June 20 Scotts Bluff County Board meeting, County Attorney Dave Eubanks told media the county asked the Nebraska State Patrol to conduct a criminal investigation of possible improprieties in the detention center’s equine therapy program.

Eubanks said, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Chris Baer with the State Patrol will conduct the independent investigation if the county conducted its own internal probe.

“The investigation covers a number of things,” Eubanks said. “It includes possible misuse of public property, financial irregularities and financial impropriety. It’s a criminal investigation.”

Eubanks said Baer arrived in Gering on June 20 ready to proceed. No timeline has been given to how long it will take to conduct the investigation.

The program, implemented about three years ago, was used exclusively by juveniles at the county detention center. It was later expanded to include adults and veterans who were part of a community program.

Starting with three horses, it eventually grew to 19.

Equine therapy program director Steve Smith was placed on administrative leave about June 10. He said he has his opinions on what happened and described how the problem seemed to come out of nowhere. “A major part of that was retaliation because I started questioning the spending of money and the new director’s hiring practices for the equine program. That’s when it started going downhill. I’ve worked hard to make the equine program self-sustaining.”

He has since spoken with legal counsel. “I’ve filed a formal grievance with the county,” he said.

Patricia Miller, Interim Director of the County Detention Center, said the investigation is ongoing, so she was unable to comment. She deferred any questions to the county board.

County Commission Chairman Mark Masterton said the county is also involved in the civil investigation of the program. “We’re looking at violations of the personnel manual and county policy,” he said.

“We’ve hired the Douglas Kelly law firm to look into it. I’m sure there will be some overlap with the State Patrol’s criminal investigation.”

Masterton said the county board became aware of the alleged improprieties after the program expanded to include 19 horses. They were also unaware it was serving adults and private groups, as it had never been discussed with them.

Several of the horses had been given to the county after an animal abuse case had been conducted in Morrill County. The detention center was the only nearby facility where the horses could be housed. A lot of those animals were later adopted, although some remain.

“The program escalated beyond what the county knew about,” Masterton said. “We thought we were operating with three horses. We never thought we had 19. We depend on our department heads to keep us up to date on what’s going on, but we weren’t informed.”

He added the county has no intention of eliminating a program that has garnered national attention and has been of great benefit to the center’s inmates.

In 2013, the program received major grant funding for service to youth to operate the program. Smith said grant funding has been awarded every year since then. “The recognition we’ve received hasn’t been for equine program itself, but for the overall attitude on how we work with both juveniles and families.”

Smith also complimented former detention center director Ron Johns for his forward thinking in implementing a program that has benefitted the area. Judges have used the program as part of the rehabilitation process.
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