Thursday, February 15, 2001

Hearing focuses on charge of kickbacks for Butler Dems

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — The tape recording is sometimes muffled, “but the message to Brent Dixon, the message on the tape, is clear,” said Assistant Attorney General Arthur J. Marziale Jr.

        The message, Mr. Marziale said, was that Mr. Dixon could lose his job as a special assistant to the Butler County elections board unless he surrendered all of his after-tax salary to the county's financially strapped Democratic Party.

        Mr. Dixon, 31, testified and his tape was played Wednesday during a hearing in the Rhodes office tower, where Mr. Marziale is pressing the case against Mark A. Conese, an attorney and former Butler judge who is fighting to keep his job on the Butler elections board.

        The hearing is the first of its kind under authority of Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell. He ac cuses Mr. Conese of pressuring Mr. Dixon for political contributions, a violation of Ohio law. The hearing, which will determine whether Mr. Conese should be removed from office, continues today before Hearing Officer Richard Lillie, a Cleveland lawyer and former judge.

        Mr. Marziale said a disturbing picture of Butler politics emerges from the evidence. But Mr. Conese's lawyer, Michael Shanks of Hamilton, said he smells a setup — and questions why his client is even accused of any wrongdoing.

        “The citizens of Butler County and the citizens of Ohio expect that the secretary will stop impropriety — and expect no shakedowns, no "quid pro quos,' no public employees worried about being fired for failing to contribute to a political party, no public employees worried about having to "bid' for a job,” Mr. Marziale said.

        Mr. Dixon was secretly armed with a tape recorder when he met at Democratic Party headquarters with Mr. Conese and former Democratic Party Chairman Donald Daiker on March 1, 2000, to discuss his job status.

        “Now only (Mr. Dixon) knew this was being recorded, and he wanted to get some damning evidence,” Mr. Shanks said.

        Besides, Mr. Shanks said, many of the taped statements were not made by Mr. Conese. It was Mr. Daiker who allegedly replied, “we'd fire his a-- immediately,” after Mr. Dixon asks what would happen if a special assistant reneged on a promise to surrender his $400 monthly salary.

        However, Mr. Dixon alleges that Mr. Conese agreed with Mr. Daiker, and three fellow Democrats testified that Mr. Conese made a similar statement hours after the alleged exchange with Mr. Dixon.

        Mr. Daiker, who resigned from the elections board in December, on Wednesday clutched a 3-inch-thick accordion folder and declined to answer questions, saying he wanted to avoid self-incrimination. “I invoke my Fifth Amendment privileges, sir,” he said, over and over.
       Mark A. Conese is accused of pressuring an elections employee for money.


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