Friday, February 16, 2001

Conese: Tape isn't full story

Claims he challenged kickback statement

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — Butler County elections board member Mark A. Conese's words were: “I'd fire them in a minute.”

        He spoke those words after Brent Dixon, a special assistant to the board, asked what would happen if another special assistant didn't give money to the county's Democratic Party.

        But Mr. Conese, testifying Thursday in a state hearing, said he didn't intend his tape-recorded statement to be taken literally.

        “(It) was in the form of a question, with my hands turned toward the ceiling and a question mark on my forehead,” he said.

        Mr. Conese also denies he threatened Mr. Dixon's part-time special assistant job. Mr. Dixon's audiotape recorded Mr. Conese saying that job loss would be “a possibility” if Mr. Dixon didn't surrender his net annual pay — about $4,800 — to the party.

        Those words also were “more in a question form,” not a statement, Mr. Conese asserted.

        The proceeding, which will determine whether Mr. Conese keeps his $15,000-a-year elections post, began Wednesday and is expected to conclude today.

        Hearing Officer Richard G. Lillie, a Cleveland attorney, said he expects to send a written recommendation to the man seeking Mr. Conese's ouster, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, within 30 days.

        Mr. Blackwell is still investigating other possible improprieties in Butler County, said Judy Hoffman, Mr. Blackwell's chief elections counsel. Depending on the probe's outcome, Mr. Blackwell could refer the matter for criminal prosecution, she said, declining further comment.

        On Thursday, Mr. Conese said he wished someone had videotaped his March 1, 2000, meeting with Mr. Dixon and Donald Daiker, a former Democratic Party chairman who also sat on the elections board.

        Mr. Conese says a video would have more accurately reflected the messages he attempted to convey. Mr. Conese said he was trying to indicate he disagreed with Mr. Daiker's declaration that special elections assistants would “absolutely” be fired if they reneged on promises to give political money.

        “I assumed that my body language, which is not on Mr. Dixon's (audio) tape, was an indication that I was questioning (Mr. Daiker's statement),” Mr. Conese said.

        Mr. Daiker, who resigned from the elections board and party chairmanship, invoked his Fifth Amendment right and declined to answer questions Wednesday during Mr. Conese's hearing.

        Mr. Conese also says he tried to stop Mr. Daiker from saying that special assistants, whom the party appoints, would be fired for failing to make political contributions.

        “I was trying to stop that line of communication,” Mr. Conese said. “I may have been trying to interrupt Daiker, or belched or something, to start to try to speak.”

        Mr. Conese said it had become customary for special assistants and board of elections members to pledge half their salaries to the Democratic Party. But because the party has difficulty raising money in Republican-dominated Butler County, those employees were being asked to contribute all of their take-home pay. They would still reap thousands of dollars in health insurance and retirement benefits.

        However, “There was never a requirement” that Mr. Dixon or anyone else contribute, Mr. Conese said.

        Ohio law forbids public servants from soliciting or accepting “anything of value” in exchange for employment. It also prohibits anyone from coercing another person for political contributions.


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