Wednesday, December 06, 2000

Mayor gets off with a fine

Norwood's Hochbein guilty of 1 charge

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Norwood Mayor Joe Hochbein, who entered his six-day trial last week facing 14 counts of theft in office and falsification, left the Hamilton County Courthouse on Tuesday exonerated of any dishonesty and ordered to pay a fine for a misdemeanor violation.

        Common Pleas Judge Fred Cartolano reduced a misdemeanor falsification count to illegal use of a taxpayer identification number and ordered Mr. Hochbein to pay court costs that should amount to a few hundred dollars when tallied.

[photo] Mayor Joe Hochbein said Tuesday at Norwood City Hall he is eager to get back to work now that he has been exonerated of theft in office and falsification charges.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        The sentencing occurred after the mayor agreed to a plea bargain with prosecutors. Mr. Hochbein entered “no contest” pleas to three remaining charges of the original 14 — a felony charge of election falsification and two falsification misdemeanors. The other 11 counts, including all theft charges, had been dismissed earlier in the trial.

        In dismissing the election falsification count, Judge Cartolano said no such charge can be brought under Ohio law unless first considered by an election commission. He said that was not done.

        Since no evidence was produced that any funds were stolen, the judge dismissed the falsification misdemeanors, but found Mr. Hochbein guilty of one lesser offense of unlawful use of the city's taxpayer identification number because he had no official consent to use it.

        During the trial, prosecutors alleged the two-term mayor closed a bank account for the then-defunct Mayor's Classic basketball and tennis tournament and car show in July 1998 and deposited that money in his campaign account.

        Also, Mr. Hochbein's campaign finance report notes a contribution of $1,000 from financier Carl Lindner, who approved donation checks of $5,000 and $10,000 to the car show. The mayor was accused of taking $1,000 from the car show account, depositing it in his campaign fund and reporting it came from Mr. Lindner, when that was not Mr. Lindner's intent.

        The unauthorized use of the city's tax-exempt identification number on bank accounts resulted when the mayor used the number on accounts for the two civic functions that he controlled.

        Judge Cartolano dismissed the charges because he saw no victims.

        “(I did) not see where anyone was hurt — any Norwood citizens or the city of Norwood itself,” he said. “There is no evidence Mr. Hochbein personally used any money accumulated by these funds.”

        Following the ruling, the mayor, a lawyer specializing in medi cal malpractice, said he was so committed to defending his honor that he turned down a variety of plea bargains, which would have reduced the risk of losing his personal law practice had he been convicted of a felony.

        “I turned these offers down and I fought this battle ... because I care deeply about the citizens of Norwood and our city's friends who have placed their trust in me. ... I needed (them) to know that. I have never done anything at any time to breach (that) trust.”

        The yearlong investigation and trial polarized the suburb of 21,600 surrounded by Cincinnati. Feelings about the Republican Hochbein administration continue to be divided despite Tuesday's court outcome.

        “I'm very disappointed,” said Bill Montgomery, president of the Norwood Democratic Club. “I am not looking forward to living in this city any longer under his administration. We are going to suffer.”

        Safety Director Cliff Miller, a mayoral appointee, said that considering that the mayor originally faced 14 charges, the fact that he pleaded no contest and was found guilty on one misdemeanor — and that one really due to a technicality — is very encouraging and establishes the mayor's original position the charges were politically motivated.

        Betty Crum, a longtime supporter of Mr. Hochbein, was glad to see the trial end.

        “I said from the word go that we have a wonderful mayor who has done nothing wrong,” she said. “Now the cloud has lifted and we are going to get back to business.”

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