Thursday, April 17, 2003

Conese brothers' legal woes keep Ohio Supreme Court busy

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - The Conese brothers' legal complications continue.

Attorney Michael S. Conese, who just completed a six-month suspension for violating professional conduct rules involving client funds, has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to accept his resignation from practicing law.

And on Wednesday, the Supreme Court's disciplinary board made public accusations against his brother, Mark A. Conese. The Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline accuses him of professional misconduct in a county Democratic Party campaign-finance controversy, although an appeals court overturned his misdemeanor conviction in that case earlier this month.

The brothers, both former judges, did not return telephone calls seeking comment Wednesday. Both men, twins born Nov. 15, 1957, were admitted to the practice of law in Ohio on Nov. 1, 1983.

Jonathan E. Coughlan, the Supreme Court's disciplinary counsel, said the disciplinary board had not lodged any new allegations against Michael Conese since the Ohio Supreme Court suspended him in October for improperly keeping $1,000 of a client's money, then lying to investigators about it.

Coughlan said he is forbidden from disclosing whether any additional investigations had been opened on Michael Conese. Attorney disciplinary cases become public only if the board issues formal accusations.

Michael Conese's six-month suspension from law practice expired April 2. The next day, Conese signed a notarized resignation affidavit. In that document, filed with the Supreme Court on April 4, Conese said he understood that his resignation "completely and immediately" divested him of the privilege of practicing law. The statement also asserts that the resignation is "unconditional, final and irrevocable."

Such a step is considered extraordinary. The court says Ohio has 39,794 active attorneys and 8,873 on inactive status, meaning they have put their law practice on hold. Last year, the court approved only 13 attorneys' resignations.

If the Supreme Court accepts Conese's resignation, "he can never be an attorney in Ohio ever again" unless current rules change, Coughlan said.

Coughlan said he will file a sealed report recommending whether the court should accept or reject the resignation. Coughlan expects a ruling in the next few weeks. He said he could reveal no further information on the matter.

Michael Conese had been a Hamilton Municipal Court judge from 1990-'95.

Mark Conese, a judge in Butler County Domestic Relations Court from 1986-'98, has been embroiled in a controversy over campaign fund-raising since March 2000. Mark Conese and Donald Daiker, then chairman of the party, were accused of telling Brent Dixon that he could lose his part-time job as an elections-board employee if he didn't contribute more money to the county Democratic Party. Dixon secretly tape-recorded the meeting.

A year later, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell removed Conese from his post on the Butler County Board of Elections after finding that Conese was guilty of "malfeasance and misfeasance in office" in connection with the Dixon matter.

Then, in 2002, the Ohio Elections Commission fined Mark Conese $1,000 - and a Butler County jury convicted him of a misdemeanor charge of soliciting or receiving improper compensation. An appeals court overturned that conviction April 7. The court said the activities alleged did not fit the definition of "coerce," an essential element of the offense, because Dixon did not make the contribution that Conese and Daiker allegedly sought.

Coughlan could not comment on what effect, if any, that reversal would have on the disciplinary case, or what could happen if Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper gets the Supreme Court's permission to challenge the appeals court's ruling.


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