Monday, June 30, 1997
Break the law, pay the price

The Cincinnati Enquirer

House members censured Rep. Mike Fox for accepting airfare and lodging from a lobbyist in 1996. Mr. Fox was removed as chairman of the education committee.
(AP photo)
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Mike Fox said it best.

"I screwed up."

Did he ever. And Ohio's Joint Legislative Ethics Committee didn't waste any time rapping his knuckles. In the process, it also sent a strong message to the vast state government community in Columbus.

The party is apparently over.

The Republican state representative from Fairfield Township took a trip, made a mistake and honorably took his lumps. He became a living lesson in how to shoot oneself in the rump by accepting a $406 plane ride and two nights of room and board in a house near an Arizona golf course.

The plane ticket and the two nights in Scottsdale were gifts from a lobbyist. That's against the law in Ohio.

The General Assembly's official reaction was swift and severe. One day after his ethical lapses became public knowledge, Mike Fox lost his job as chairman of the House Education Committee.

He is the first legislator to be held to the higher standards of Ohio's 3-year-old code of ethics. Now the apologetic representative - "when something like this happens, you own up to it" - says he's ready to go back to work on education finance reform.

While Mike Fox repairs his career, his colleagues in the Ohio General Assembly, and the lobbyists who court them, better check the rules and obey them.

The message for me, Joe Citizen, is encouraging. It looks as if the system worked. Ethics reform is for real. Government is making a determined effort to get its house in order.

Cross your fingers.

Message sent

Around the Statehouse the day after Mike Fox lost his chairmanship, legislators were saddened by this turn of events, but encouraged by its message.

"The General Assembly showed its members and the public that it has a low tolerance for ethical violations," said Senate President Richard Finan, an ethics committee member.

"We also showed that we're prepared to deal quickly with ethical issues and with a certain level of severity."

The Evendale Republican who "had Mike Fox on my mind all night," added, "We made it clear that it doesn't matter if it's $1 or $10,000. If you violate the ethics, you have violated the law."

For first-term state Sen. Janet Howard, the ethics laws set guidelines. But, added the Republican from Forest Park, "They are so overreactive, the only type of people you are going to get to run for office in the future are the very, very rich."

The swiftness of the decision was on the minds of both senators. Its speed was accelerated by none other than Mike Fox.

"He chose not to fight," Mr. Finan said. "He signed a wavier of his rights."

Without that wavier, the investigation and its ensuing debate would have dragged on for at least a month and maybe a year.

"The facts are the same today as they would be next year," Mike Fox said.

"I just wanted it to be over."

Message received

Lobbyists were sobered by the Fox decision.

"No one was happy about this," said Neil Clark, president of NSC Consulting and Cincinnati Public Schools' Statehouse lobbyist. "It was a very significant, very serious ruling. The man lost his chairmanship, a job he worked for all of his life."

The lobbyist received this message: "This is a no-nonsense General Assembly. There's no politicking. They're saying, 'This is what the law says. Break the rules and you will be punished. It's a new day for ethics.' "

He'd like to see that day dawn on his profession.

"Lobbyists should be licensed in Ohio. We should be tested and made to take refresher courses. If complaints are filed and upheld, your license is revoked and you can't practice your trade. If we set up a code of ethics, and follow it, we can all work with respect and honor."

That message has already been sent to Mike Fox. He's heard it. So has the rest of the Statehouse. Let's hope it doesn't have to be repeated.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.


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