Monday, November 27, 2000

Norwood mayor goes on trial today

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NORWOOD — On the eve of his trial on charges of theft in office and falsifying records, Mayor Joe Hochbein continued to proclaim his innocence and expressed confidence a jury will clear his name.

        “I am not guilty, and I believe when the jury has the facts they will understand there is nothing (wrong) ... no criminal activity,” the mayor said last week.

        The indictment charges that he funneled more than $17,418 meant for the city of Norwood since 1996 into private accounts under his sole control.

        Mr. Hochbein also is accused of listing a $1,000 contribution from Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner, a Norwood native, on his 1998 financial report to the Hamilton County Board of Elections when no such contribution was made.

        If convicted on all 14 counts in the indictment returned in July, the two-term Republican mayor could face up to 34 years in jail.

        Jury selection begins today before Judge Fred Cartolano of Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

        Norwood, a working-class city of 21,600 surrounded by Cincinnati, has seen its share of hard times: closed businesses, homes in disrepair and crime. Just as the Rookwood Commons shopping complex neared completion last summer — giving Norwood new hopes and anticipation of sales tax revenues — its 49-year-old mayor was indicted.

        In the weeks before the trial, the city has remained polarized, but “just about everyone wants it over soon for the sake of the city,” said Carmen McKeehan of Ida Avenue, a Democrat and vocal critic of the mayor.

        “But, I think the people are nervous about what will happen, who will be the next mayor, should he be convicted,” she said.

        The Norwood Republican Central Committee would choose Mr. Hochbein's successor, who would serve until a mayoral election next November

        “I'm biased, of course, but I still hope the mayor would step down and allow someone else to take over,” Ms. McKeehan said.

        Bill Montgomery, 49, vice president of the Norwood Democratic Club and a Hochbein critic said, “I'm looking forward to the trial. I'll be there every day. ...

        “You know, when General Motors shut down (its automobile assembly plant in 1987), we had hard times and it took us time to get back on our feet,” he said. “But, that did not give our city the black eye Hochbein has.”

        Among Mr. Hochbein's staunch supporters is Betty Crum, 66, of Rolston Avenue, who worked on the mayor's campaign and has been his ally throughout his tenure.

        “I'm happy we are going

        to get this over with because there has been a shadow (unfairly) cast over our city,” she said. “Joe Hochbein has been a wonderful mayor. I just do not know how a person who has done so much good, could do so many bads things.

        “And, aren't we to believe you're innocent until you're proven guilty?” Mrs. Crum said.

        Betty Niehoff, 72, of Drex Avenue, another supporter of the mayor, said his opponents “are picking on him, period.”

        The charges allege “he used Norwood (employees) to do work at his (private) car show. Everything that has ever been done in Norwood (for the people) has used Norwood workers,” Ms. Niehoff said. “Here's a man who has fixed the streets, fixed the parks, fixed City Hall, and this is his thanks. The citizens will be glad when it's over. It's been going on too long.”

        David Parker, the lead special prosecutor assigned to the case, declined to comment.

        Mr. Parker, a Cincinnati lawyer, was appointed as special prosecutor after county Prosecutor Mike Allen said it would be inappropriate for his office to be involved. Mr. Allen is a former Hamilton County Republican chairman and had associated with Mr. Hochbein in GOP activities.

        According to documents filed with the court, the statement that Mr. Lindner had made the contribution was intended to disguise the source of the donation and “was made ... under penalty of election falsification.”

        Other charges resulting from the county sheriff's investigation allege Mr. Hochbein opened two bank accounts listing himself as mayor and using the city's federal taxpayer identification number for two private functions. They are the now-defunct Mayor's Classic basketball and tennis tournament and the Norwood Car Show.

        According to court filings, the mayor is alleged to have deposited various checks from Norwood businesses made out to the city of Norwood intended for city-sponsored events into the accounts for his private functions.

        The mayor also is accused of using city employees for the car show three times to do work related to private functions while on city time without reimbursing the city. That resulted in more than $5,000 in unreimbursed costs to the city each time, court documents said.


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