Sunday, October 31, 1999

A stink in Butler Co.

The Cincinnati Enquirer

John Holcomb
        Big news. Explorers in Siberia have discovered the fully preserved carcass of a 20,000-year-old woolly mammoth, frozen in a 23-ton ice cube.

        Big deal. Something nearly as old and creepy has been uncovered in Butler County. It's a species of politics that we thought was long extinct in Ohio.

        It started with stories by Enquirer reporter Janice Morse: Butler County Prosecutor John Holcomb is accused of coercing campaign contributions from his employees. About 80 percent of his workers donate.

  Voluntary donations questioned Oct. 24
  About the 2 Percent Club Oct. 24
  Prosecutor defends employees' donations Oct. 26
  Legislator seeks to end '2 Percent Club' Oct. 27
  Prosecutor's '2 Percent Club' splits parties Oct. 28
  Lawmakers slam 2% Club Oct. 30
        But that odious, yet legal, practice may be just the tail of the carcass. The more you dig, the worse it smells.

        When I called him, Mr. Holcomb offered a spirited defense garnished with farm-fresh profanity.

        “I think your story is politically motivated by someone who has used you,” he said, implicating Robin Piper, a former employee who is running against him next year. Not true. Ms. Morse was tipped by sources outside politics.

        “Not a G.D. cent goes in my pocket,” Mr. Holcomb insisted.

        About $50,000 a year from his $155,000 “kitty” is used for flowers, charities and sports tickets for employees, he said.

        And Mr. Holcomb says that “perfectly legal” voluntary donations from employees are a cleaner way to raise cash than taking it from “Freddy Financier,” like other county officials.

        “Would you rather have me go to Mr. Industrialist or Mr. Manufacturer and get some big-time help? I don't take their money.”

        The prosecutor is being persecuted because he's the only elected Democrat in Butler County government, he says.

        As Exhibit A, he offered this story: About six months ago, the top two officers of the Butler County Republican Party came to his office with an offer. “They told me if I would change my politics (switch parties), I would never have to worry about opposition again. But I got just enough hillbilly in me to say no.”

        Both GOP officials are big developers and Mr. Holcomb has a vote on the county Board of Equalization that adjusts property taxes, he pointed out: “Developers want lower taxes.”

        Joe Schwarz Sr. of J-II Homes Inc. was at the meeting as chairman of the Butler County GOP Finance Committee. “I don't know what the hell he is talking about,” Mr. Schwarz said. “I've been in this business 38 years and I've never asked the Board of Equalization for anything.”

        The other developer, Carlos Todd of the Todd Group Inc., chairman of the Butler County GOP, hotly denied Mr. Holcomb's version of the meeting. “That's absolutely not true,” he said. “That's why I brought (Mr. Schwarz) as a witness, because I know John Holcomb.”

        When Mr. Todd became party chairman in 1992, he says, he and Mr. Holcomb made a deal: Republican Treasurer Mary Law would be unopposed, and so would Mr. Holcomb, who also agreed not to spend his war-chest against other Republicans.

        When Ms. Law decided this year not to seek re-election in 2000, the deal expired and Mr. Holcomb wanted a new deal, Mr. Todd said. “He called and said let's talk.”

        Mr. Schwarz says “a lot of things were discussed” in the meeting. Mr. Holcomb was told that “if he wanted our help, the only way to secure that was to file as a Republican.” Otherwise, “No free passes anymore.”

        Mr. Todd said Mr. Holcomb replied with a threat: “There was a threat that there were some things he could make happen, politically or through the courts, to other officers in the county or in our party. He's a prosecutor.”

        “Basically, he said, "Depending on what your decision is (on an opponent), that will tell me what I will do with some things I have on my desk'.”

        Mr. Holcomb's story is “an absolute lie,” Mr. Todd said. “John Holcomb is trying to cover his own mistakes.”

        When I asked him about the threat, Mr. Holcomb replied, “Absolutely not. How can I threaten them? They have all the money and all the horses. I'm just a lone voice in the wilderness.”

        But Republican Butler County Commissioner Mike Fox said the threat sounds like Mr. Holcomb. “He would use his office to embarrass everyone in the Republican Party he could embarrass,” he said. “Everybody is afraid of him. He's got files on everybody. That's part of the mythology in Butler County.”

        Mr. Holcomb replied, “I don't know if anybody's afraid of me or not, but I do go back a long way.”

        So. According to his critics, Prosecutor John Holcomb is a throwback who uses his power to shake down employees and intimidate political opponents — the J. Edgar Hoover of Butler County.

        According to Mr. Holcomb, he stands alone against mammoth county corruption.

        But regardless of whose story of the meeting is true, what happened that day in the prosecutor's office is unethical — perhaps criminal. If Mr. Holcomb was offered a “free pass” because developers wanted him to change parties and reduce taxes, that could be bribery. Threatening to prosecute someone to retaliate for election opposition could be extortion. Both are felonies, and misdemeanors such as abuse of public office and soliciting improper compensation might also apply, a law enforcement official said.

        The prosecutor can't investigate himself. But a judge, a police chief or the county sheriff can ask the Ohio Attorney General to investigate; or a judge can request a special prosecutor.

        Even the FBI might get curious.

        Somebody should.

        The buried carcasses in Butler County smell like a woolly mammoth starting to thaw.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.

Voluntary donations questioned Oct. 24, 1999
About the 2 Percent Club Oct. 24, 1999
Prosecutor defends employees' donations Oct. 26, 1999
Legislator seeks to end '2 Percent Club' Oct. 27, 1999
Prosecutor's '2 Percent Club' splits parties Oct. 28, 1999
Lawmakers slam 2% Club Oct. 30, 1999