Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Election allegations to be aired

Butler official denies donor coercion

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ohio's chief elections officer is accusing a Butler County elections official of coercing campaign contributions — a violation of state law.

        Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell has ordered Mark A. Conese to appear at a Jan. 16 hearing in Columbus to show why he shouldn't be removed from his post on the Butler County Board of Elections. The order, issued Friday, was made public Tuesday.

        Mr. Conese denies the allegations, which he calls “blatantly political.”

        Mr. Blackwell accused him of “misfeasance and malfeasance in office” and said Mr. Conese violated election laws and ethical standards.

        The hearing involving Mr. Conese will be the first of its kind under Mr. Blackwell, who took office in January 1999, said James Lee, a spokesman for Mr. Blackwell's office.

        Mr. Lee called the hearing a preliminary result from an investigation that began more than six months ago, but wouldn't say whether action could be taken against anyone else.

        At least 17 people have been questioned in the investigation since late May, public records show, after Butler Democrats called upon Mr. Blackwell's office to investigate Democrat members of the county board of elec tions, Mr. Conese and Don Daiker.

        During a March 1 meeting, the pair allegedly threatened to fire a board employee, Brent Dixon, if he didn't contribute much of his $6,000 salary to the county's Democratic Party.

        “The truth will win out. The tape will vindicate me,” Mr. Conese said Tuesday, referring to a tape-recording of the conversation, made by Mr. Dixon. “It's clear on that tape that I didn't threaten anyone's job.”

        Last week, Mr. Daiker resigned from the Butler elections board and also from his post as chairman of the county Democratic Party. His resignations were tendered Thursday — a day before the secretary of state issued his seven-count complaint against Mr. Conese.

        Mr. Lee declined to comment on that timing; Mr. Daiker's brief resignation letter to Mr. Blackwell gave no explanation.

        Bob Mosketti, director of the Butler elections board, declined to comment except to say that Mr. Daiker's vacancy is expected to be filled by a vote of Democrats on Dec. 28.

        Another board employee who had been questioned, Philip O. Morrical Jr., resigned in October, citing health reasons.

        That post is likely to remain vacant until the matter involving Mr. Conese has concluded, Mr. Mosketti said.

       Steve Kemme contributed to this report.


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