Sunday, March 30, 2003

Patton scandal cannot top war


Public's focus shifts to weightier topic

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Bill Schmiade of the Grocery Bag on Ky. 16 in Taylor Mill is a Democrat who voted for Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton. "But he let me down," the store owner says. "He let the whole state down."
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
COVINGTON - Paul Patton ought to be thankful for Saddam Hussein.

Northern Kentucky residents say they are more focused on the United States efforts to rid Iraq of its leader than they are on the governor's alleged abuse of power in dealing with his former mistress, Tina Conner.

At the Olde Towne Tavern on West Seventh Street in Covington, a favorite haunt of local power brokers and political watchers, the opinions are usually as tangy as owner Frank Bonfilio's lasagna.

But it's the war and not Patton's battles with his ex-lover that has tongues wagging at the Olde Town.

"All war all the time," was how Bonfilio described his customers' chatter. "You hear a little about Patton, but not as much as you would think. Hey, it's not the biggest story going on right now. Iraq is.

"Patton should be happy Saddam is taking all the headlines," he said.

The governor's relationship with Western Kentucky businesswoman Conner was big news nationwide when it broke last fall. News of the affair killed Patton's plans to run against Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning of Southgate. And even though a federal grand jury in Covington is investigating allegations the governor abused his power in first rewarding and then punishing businesses owned by Conner, buzz over the affair had mostly died down.

That is, until last week - when the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission charged Patton with four counts of allegedly abusing his power in dealings with Conner. The governor has denied the charges.

And while the commission's actions were front-page news across the state, Edgewood resident Mark Wehry says he really didn't notice the new development in what apparently has become an old story.

"I thought that whole thing was over," said Wehry, 38, a senior computer analyst. "I was surprised it crept up in the news again."

Like many Kentuckians, Wehry was more closely following the story when it was fresh. After all, it was a tale both lurid and alluring.

A powerful politician tearfully admitting to an extramarital affair. Allegations of a governor abusing his power. A first lady, Judi Patton, so angry she refused appear publicly with her husband. Conner's tales of sexual romps that included three-way sex involving her, the governor and an unnamed female paramour.

"When it first came out I was shocked," Wehry said. "But Patton has really seemed to lay low. I really haven't thought much about it. It's lost its luster. And people are thinking about bigger things, like the war.

"Besides, sex in the governor's office is small potatoes compared to what Bill Clinton did."

Others also made a connection between the affair former President Clinton had with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and Patton's dalliance with Conner.

"You had a president who did it," said Terry Kelch, 57, of Independence. "Why not a governor?"

Kelch and his wife, Tracey, 51, had just finished their morning walk at Taylor Mill's Pride Park when asked about their feelings on Patton.

"It's sad and it's wrong if he was using his power in the wrong way," Tracey Kelch said. "But, unfortunately, it's not really all that surprising. It happens so much when people are elected to powerful positions."

Just up Taylor Mill Road at the Grocery Bag, a neighborhood carryout, Patton has let down a once-staunch supporter.

Store owner Bill Schmiade, 35, is a Democrat who not only voted for Patton but also believed he could have defeated Bunning in the 2004 Senate race.

Thursday morning, he called Patton a name that can't be printed in this newspaper.

"I don't want to come off as being disrespectful to the office of the governor," Schmiade said. "But he let me down. He let the whole state down.

"The really sad thing for Patton personally is that he has not only embarrassed himself and this state," he said. "But what about his wife, children and, I assume, grandchildren? Clinton was stupid, no doubt there. (But) Patton is a senior citizen. Kinda gives you the image of a dirty old man.

"My 6-year-old has asked me many questions about this. What do you tell your daughter in the first grade?" Schmiade said. "Hard to be a leader when you cannot control yourself and conduct yourself in a professional, mature manner."

On Janet Drive in Taylor Mill, neighbors Ray "Whitey" Brown, 78, and Harold Baird, 56, expressed only a passing interest in Patton's travails. Like others, they said a politician caught up in a sex scandal pales in comparison with U.S. soldiers defending their country in Iraq.

"I'm more worried and concerned about the war than some politician getting in trouble, even if it is the governor," said Baird, who was wearing a 9-11 tribute sweat shirt with the words "Never Forget" printed across the front.

"I really haven't even kept up with it," said Baird, a maintenance man at the Crestview Hills Mall. "You say something happened with it recently? Oh, well. There are more important things to worry about."

But maybe not for Patton. Though the four ethics board charges carry the possibility of a reprimand and a $5,000 fine for each count, he is also being investigated by a federal grand jury.

That grand jury, seated in Covington, has yet to hear testimony from Conner or Patton. But it could find enough evidence to indict the governor.

Patton still must resolve a lawsuit filed by Conner in a Franklin County court. The sexual harassment suit, which was the linchpin of the affair coming to public light, has been much diminished, but Patton still must answer to allegations of outrageous behavior and causing emotional distress.

Nonetheless, Brown said, "politicians get in the trouble all the time. That's not news, is it?" he joked. "I don't like to judge people. That's up to others. It just makes you wonder: Who can you trust anymore?"

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com




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