Sunday, September 19, 1999

Popular mayor may have to go

Law says felon must leave office; village says no

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MAINEVILLE — He is the man who bakes Christmas cookies with neighborhood children, who created festivals and awards programs, who gave this village of 1,000 residents an identity and a vision.

        But by the time residents are sure to vote him back into office in November, Mayor John Michael will be a convicted felon, having pleaded guilty to a charge of mail fraud.

        That distinction, by law, is supposed to cost him his job.

        And, in this sliver of small-town America, where few aspire to public office, residents and council members alike say they don't want to see him go.

        The law is not on their side.

        Evidence of Mr. Michael's popularity among villagers is in full view.

        On Friday, as residents set up booths at Ohio 48 and Fosters Maineville Road for the annual Crossroads Celebration that Mr. Michael established, green ribbons hung on buildings as a testament to community support.

        One of them is posted on a pillar at Pat Dressler's Crossroads Cafe. She does not live in the village, but still refers to Mr. Michael as “my mayor.”

        “John's a super person. His heart's here and that's why he does so much,” she said. “If he's not mayor, they'll miss him.”

        Sipping coffee with friends at the cafe, life-long resident Ver non Hildebrant offered his opinion.

        “I don't think anybody wants to see him go,” the 78-year-old said.

        Resident Janet Testerman wants to make sure the federal judge who sentences Mr. Michael next month has a balanced view of their mayor.

        She sent the judge a list of 40 of Mr. Michael's accomplishments. They include appointing the village's first full-time police chief, forming committees to plan land use and the construction of a new town hall, donating his own money to help fund community events, contributing his $1,000-a-year village paycheck to charity.

        Mrs. Testerman also intends to send the judge a petition with more than 200 signatures asking that Mr. Michael, 51, be allowed to remain as mayor.

        “We just don't see why he couldn't,” she said.

Law says otherwise
        State law is clear: Convicted felons cannot hold public office in Ohio unless the conviction is reversed, annulled or the person receives a full pardon.

        If Mr. Michael refuses to step down — and he has indicated to council that he won't leave voluntarily — it's up to the village solicitor or county prosecutor to sue for his removal.

        Village Solicitor Kevin McDonough wants no part of that.

        “There's no plan for me to take any action,” said Mr. McDonough, who works for a law firm in Kenwood, about 20 miles from this Warren County town.

        “I know he is very well liked out there. Everybody thinks he's doing a good job.”

        Besides, there's no one to take Mr. Michael's place, said Dr. Steve Harmon, a village councilman and pastor of Maineville Baptist Church.

        Four of six current council positions are filled by appointees because, traditionally, the village has had a tough time getting candidates for office, he said.

        That includes the mayor's seat. Mr. Michael, elected in 1995 after a brief stint as a council appointee, has run unopposed in the last two elections.

        “Therein lies the problem. I'm not sure we have anybody else in the village that desires to be the mayor,” Dr. Harmon said.

        Warren County Prosecutor Tim Oliver won't say whether he would take legal action to force Mr. Michael from office. However, he issued a veiled threat.

        “I would be extremely disappointed if the Maineville village solicitor decides not to take action,” Mr. Oliver said.

        “I have no comment except to say that in another instance of a similar nature, this office indicated to the individual involved that if he did not resign, we would take action.”

Grateful for support
        Mr. Michael's problems began earlier this year, when federal authorities accused him of using the mail to win $45,400 in reimbursement from Prudential Insurance Co. for invalid expenses in 1993 and 1994. Mr. Michael, who owns an insurance and investment firm in Maineville, was serving as an agent for Prudential at the time.

        He pleaded guilty in June to one charge of mail fraud, a crime that could send him to prison for up to 11 months. He also could receive probation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Barnes said.

        A sentencing date has not been set, but Mr. Barnes expects that to occur by late October.

        Mr. Michael said he was grateful for the community support, but declined to talk about the case or whether he'll attempt to keep the mayor's seat.

        “I'm going on legal advice as far as not to say anything, although I would like to tell everybody the whole story,” Mr. Michael said.

        Some villagers say they already know what happened. Mr. Michael told them.

        Three months before he entered the plea, he warned constituents and colleagues that he was under federal investigation.

        At a “lobby night,” an informal public meeting in the cozy council chambers on Ohio 48, he spoke to a small crowd.

        “He explained where (federal investigators) came up with what they had. He explained what it was and that evidently something was charged that was not accurate, but that he had another person handling the stuff for him,” Dr. Harmon recalled, unwilling to elaborate.

        “He has been very honest with everybody and told us what the charges would probably be. He's been very forthright with us.”

        Donna Lambert, a council appointee running for election in November, thinks the criminal case and the prospect of losing Mr. Michael are “asinine.”

        “But, I wouldn't want to say we couldn't go on. It would be hard for us to continue,” Mrs. Lambert said. “But we would. We'd have to.”


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