Thursday, May 16, 2002

Conese guilty of soliciting

Jurors hung on more serious felony charge

By Janice Morse,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A former judge and elections board member was convicted Wednesday of soliciting an improper contribution to the Butler County Democratic party.

        After about six hours of deliberations, a jury convicted attorney Mark Conese of the misdemeanor charge but deadlocked over a felony charge of misconduct of an elections board member.

        Mr. Conese, 44, shook his head “no” and glared at the jury as Visiting Judge Jeffrey Froelich read the verdict after a three-day trial in Butler County Common Pleas Court and more than two years of controversy.

        The case has been brewing since a March 1, 2000, meeting that was secretly recorded by Brent Dixon, a special assistant at the Butler County Board of Elections.

        During the meeting, Mr. Conese and then-Democratic party chairman Donald Daiker told Mr. Dixon he could lose his job if he didn't surrender all of his after-tax pay — about $4,800 — to the party's campaign fund. Mr. Daiker testified against Mr. Conese in exchange for his future plea to a misdemeanor charge.

        Although Judge Froelich suspended a six-month jail sentence and ordered Mr. Conese to pay only $250 of a $1,000 fine, Mr. Conese's conviction on the misdemeanor charge of soliciting or receiving improper compensation carries another significant penalty: a seven-year ban from holding a position of public trust or public office.

        Mr. Conese, who was removed from the elections board by the secretary of state, is a former Butler County Domestic Relations Court judge.

        Mr. Conese will not face a retrial on the felony charge. Judge Froelich dismissed that charge after defense lawyer Michael Shanks argued it was difficult to prove.

        The jury was leaning toward convicting Mr. Conese on the felony, said juror Leslie Auvil, 20, of Hamilton. Jurors had voted 10-2 in favor of a guilty verdict on that charge, she said.

        The jurors' agreement on the misdemeanor charge was based largely on Mr. Conese's tape-recorded statement that it was “a possibility” that Mr. Dixon could lose his board job if he refused to make the specified contribution.

        “We listened to the tape over and over,” Ms. Auvil said. Some sections are muffled and faint; after about four hours of deliberations, jurors had asked for a transcript of the tape and of the trial testimony, but Judge Froelich informed them no transcripts were available.

        Mr. Shanks told reporters he wasn't sure whether he would appeal the conviction. Mr. Conese did not speak to reporters.

        Prosecutor Robin Piper said the verdict was “the jury's statement that, "Yes, this is wrong, and we're going to stand up and say so.'”

        He said the verdict should send the message that “the strong-arm style of politics — of coercion — is out of style and against the law. It just doesn't work anymore.”

        Donna Nicol, a Democratic Party central committeewoman whose complaint launched a state investigation of the alleged coercion, attended part of the trial.

        “It's been over two years to wait for the system to work, and it finally did. I was beginning to wonder,” she said.


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