Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Election board member ousted in fund scandal

Official accused of undue pressure

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Mark A. Conese has been removed from the Butler County elections board over allegations that he pressured an elections worker to make a political donation.

        Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said Tuesday he was immediately ousting Mr. Conese from the board, citing “clear and convincing evidence that you coerced, threatened to coerce or intimidated an employee” to give money to the county's Democratic Party last year.

        Mr. Blackwell's notice to Mr. Conese also says, “you have committed apparent violations of the election law and the criminal law.” Officials would not say whether they would take other action against Mr. Conese, who is a lawyer and a former judge.

        Mr. Conese has denied any wrongdoing, and attempts to speak with him Tuesday were unsuccessful. But in a written statement he repeated his earlier accusation that Mr. Blackwell, a Republican, “is acting purely on political motivation.”

        Mr. Blackwell was acting on the recommendation of Hearing Officer Richard G. Lillie, who considered testimony and evidence from a three-day hearing in Columbus a month ago. Mr. Lillie issued a report condemning this type of political fund raising and criticizing those who participated.

        “We believe it's been at least 10 years since a board of elections member was actually removed from office in the state of Ohio,” James Lee, spokesman for Mr. Blackwell, said Tuesday.

        Eager to put the yearlong scandal behind them and rebuild their party, Butler Democrats have set an April 3 meeting to vote on a replacement for Mr. Conese — the second Democrat on the elections board to be replaced since December. Donald Daiker, who was involved in the same situation that led to Mr. Conese's ouster, resigned from the party chairmanship and the elections board.

        Mr. Daiker's successor, Dan Gattermeyer, said, “Our challenge as a party is to recognize that we are under new leadership and focus on not letting this incident tear us apart.”

        Butler Democrats blew the whistle on a March 1, 2000, meeting that Mr. Daiker and Mr. Conese had with Brent Dixon. The Democrats had appointed Mr. Dixon to a job as a part-time special assistant to the elections board.

        Mr. Dixon secretly audiotaped the meeting, during which Mr. Daiker and Mr. Conese told him that the party's special assistants would be expected to contribute all of their after-tax salary to the party, but the job would still be worth it for the health insurance and retirement benefits.

        In recommending that Mr. Blackwell oust Mr. Conese, Mr. Lillie said the case showed “a pattern of misconduct” that the Democratic Party perpetuated, using the special assistant slots “as a fund-raising vehicle for the party.”

        Democratic Party leaders disagree.

        “The party does not find it acceptable, nor would it tolerate, coercing board employees to contribute money to keep their jobs,” the Butler Democratic Party said in a statement Tuesday. “It should be clear to all that the incident in question came to light because it was reported to the Secretary of State by members of (the party). Thus, the party cannot and should not be painted with the same broad brush that is used to investigate (this) specific incident.”


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