Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Prosecutor gave to Deters campaign

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The special prosecutor who led an investigation into Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters contributed $2,500 to Deters' political campaign in 1998.

Cincinnati lawyer Pierce Cunningham acknowledged Monday that he did not disclose the donation - the maximum allowed under Ohio law - when he was named special prosecutor in December.

Cunningham was appointed to investigate whether Deters or anyone on his staff attempted to cover up a theft from the evidence room while Deters was Hamilton County prosecutor in 1996.

He announced last week that the grand jury probe had found no evidence of wrongdoing by Deters.

Cunningham said Monday that his contribution to Deters' campaign for treasurer did not influence his work.

"I was very much concerned about looking into every aspect of the case, so as to be fair to everyone," Cunningham said.

He said he could not recall many details about the contribution, only that he or his wife wrote a check to Deters' campaign in 1998. "It could have been me who wrote the check," Cunningham said. "I don't recall."

State campaign records list Cunningham as the contributor and show that the donation was made in April 1998. The records also show that Cunningham had donated just once before in the past 13 years to a statewide candidate: a $50 donation to Paul Pfeiffer's campaign for attorney general in 1990.

The disclosure of Cunningham's contribution to Deters came as a surprise Monday to Prosecutor Mike Allen, who said he had requested a special prosecutor on the case to avoid a potential conflict of interest involving his office.

Allen said he recommended Cunningham for the job after asking him whether there was any reason he would be unable to "fairly and impartially" handle the investigation.

"We asked the question," Allen said Monday. "The answer we got was no."

Allen said he wished he had known about the contribution. But he would not say whether the information would have prompted him to withdraw his recommendation of Cunningham for the job.

Based on Allen's recommendation, Common Pleas Judge Fred Cartolano appointed Cunningham in late December.

Deters, a Republican, said he did not know Cunningham before the investigation began and he did not recall his contribution in 1998.

"I didn't know he'd given any money to my campaign," Deters said. "And I certainly would have had nothing to do with the appointment of a special prosecutor in this case."

Asked if he knew Cunningham personally or socially, Deters said he knew him only from his work as special prosecutor. "Let's just say we don't go out to dinner," Deters said.

Cunningham also said he did not know Deters personally and that he was never active in his campaign. He said he did not mention the contribution when he was appointed special prosecutor because he did not recall it at the time.

According to the Ohio Ethics Commission, the failure of a special prosecutor to disclose a political contribution is not a violation of ethics laws.

"But that doesn't mean when someone's appointed special prosecutor they don't have other obligations to the court that appoints them," said David Freel, executive director of the commission.

Tim Burke, co-chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said one of those obligations should have been to disclose the contribution.

"When you bring a special prosecutor in, you expect him to come in without any degree of favoritism or any agenda," said Burke. "A $2,500 contribution is still, even in this day and age, a very significant contribution."

Cunningham's work on the case is nearly finished. The grand jury was sent home Friday after determining that neither Deters nor anyone on his staff attempted to conceal the theft of $2,817.

A former prosecutor's investigator, Pete Marshall, has been charged with the theft and is to appear in court next week.

E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com

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