February 21, 2024

Linda Harris
TRIAL CONTINUES — Former Jefferson County Health Department administrator Annette Stewart looks over case work Wednesday with her attorney, Dennis McNamara.

STEUBENVILLE — The former Jefferson County health department administrator who allegedly gave herself a pay raise and then doctored official records to cover it up insisted to a Jefferson County Common Pleas Court jury Wednesday she only did what she was told.

Annette Stewart, under indictment for theft in office, tampering with records, falsification and having an unlawful interest in a public contract, said it was her bosses, the late Dr. Frank L. Petrola, longtime chairman of the board, and Dr. Frank J. Petrola, former health district commissioner, who told her to amend her minutes of the April 25, 2017, board meeting to say she’d been given a hefty, $12 an hour pay raise.

Prosecutors contend Stewart was able to pocket just over $63,000 in department funds to which she wasn’t entitled.

According to the indictment, Stewart “falsified records to increase her salary, without the knowledge or approval” of the health board. Prosecutors also contend she used her position as an administrator to get her son a job in October 2017.

“I was instructed to correct the minutes and insert the information in there,” Stewart told the jury. “I even asked where to put it.”

Stewart said she was at that April 25, 2017, board meeting but was nervous and had a bathroom emergency so she left the room without anyone noticing. She said she was unaware of the raise until she was preparing to send out the meeting minutes just before the May board meeting, adding, “When the board president tells you to do something, you do it.”

“Frank L. …asked me why my (pay raise) was not in there,” she said. “I told him I wasn’t in there and … didn’t know about it. I don’t think people knew I left the board meeting, I just got up and left.”

There was no mention of a pay raise for Stewart in the Herald-Star’s coverage of the meeting, though Frank J. Petrola’s selection as commissioner was covered in depth.

Frank L. Petrola died in 2020, two years before Stewart’s indictment, and his cousin, Frank J. Petrola, is not able to testify, “so all we have is your word,” Assistant Attorney General Anthony Cillo insisted, getting Stewart to also admit she never thanked the board members for the pay boost nor had she called their attention to the changes she’d made to the minutes.

Cillo also pointed out discrepancies in the amount he said Stewart paid herself, listing it as “$40.01” in some memos and “$42.01 in others,” but she suggested the discrepancy was someone else’s clerical error, as was her son’s designation as a “registered sanitarian.”

“A $25,000 raise didn’t make me perfect, nor would it make anyone perfect,” Stewart replied, and admitted her son had no degree or experience in the field and was an unclassified, seasonal employee, though his hours doubled and he received paid holidays prosecutors say he shouldn’t have gotten.

“I did not approve (it),” Stewart said.

She also said it wasn’t her idea to ban other employees accustomed to being available at board meetings from attending, telling jurors she sent that memo out “as I was instructed to by Dr. Petrola.”

Defense Attorney Dennis McNamara asked Stewart if she’d ever knowingly taken money (you) weren’t entitled to or falsified records, to which she answered, “No.” She also insisted she’d “never hired my son, never asked anyone to hire my son,” telling the jury it was Frank J. Petrola who made that decision before she was even aware it was being considered.

Earlier in the day, McNamara had asked Registered Sanitarian Carla Gampola about unrest within the staff after Stewart gained power, and questioned if she’d just been upset because she found out other staffers were being treated to a conference out-of-state but she was told she couldn’t go because “someone has to stay behind.”

“You do what the boss tells you to do,” Gampola replied, telling jurors Stewart “was not my day-to-day supervisor, but if she told me to do something, I did it.”

After reviewing time sheets, the department’s payroll and other documents, Auditor Melissa Barnett told jurors there was no record of Jesse Cook, her son, even applying for a job.

“They don’t have any (documents) to show he ever interviewed or made application” for a job at the health department, she said. “The only thing we (found) is a letter submitted to the auditor” announcing he was joining the staff.

“That was (from) Annette Stewart, that was her job,” said Barnett, who testified through Zoom due to illness.

Prosecutors questioned Stewart’s husband, Carl, about the couples’ indebtedness before his wife’s pay raise. Stewart, a SVRTA bus driver before being diagnosed with advanced COPD, told them, “We had a normal life. I don’t know what you mean by a lot of debt.”

“We had credit cards we made payment to,” he said, conceding he had to leave his job because of his health and had no health benefits or personal income until his disability was granted a year later. He also admitted his stepson, who died two years ago at the age of 35, had a substance abuse disorder, but told jurors no drugs were found in his system.

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