Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Prosecutor tries again on Conese

Bribe conviction was overturned

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper has asked an appeals court to reconsider its decision to overturn the misdemeanor conviction of former elections board member Mark A. Conese.

The Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals, in a decision filed April 7, said Conese was not guilty of "soliciting or receiving improper compensation" because board employee Brent Dixon did not actually give the county Democratic Party the additional monetary contribution that Conese had allegedly sought in March 2000.

Dixon tape-recorded a meeting, during which someone tells him losing his part-time county job was "a possibility" if he didn't surrender more cash to the party.

The appeals court said its decision turned on the definition of the word "coerce," an essential element of the offense for which a jury convicted Conese last year. The court said the act of coercion was incomplete because Dixon did not give the additional funds.

But in a document released Monday, an assistant prosecutor, Randi E. Froug, says: "To adhere to the dictionary meaning of words in this statute without regard to (lawmakers') obvious intent creates an absurd and unjust result."

The court's interpretation of the law "produces an absurd result by requiring the public employee/victim of the crime to actually give the offender an illegal contribution - and thus commit a crime himself - to prove that the offender 'coerced a contribution,'" Froug wrote. The ruling means an employer can actually threaten a public employee with job loss "with no criminal liability unless the employee/victim accedes to the threat by actually giving a contribution as a result of the coercion."

Conese, who did not return phone message seeking comment; faces a 10-day deadline for filing a response to the prosecutor's request for reconsideration. He has maintained his innocence since being accused, saying his statements on the tape were misinterpreted and that he did nothing that deviated from well-accepted political fund-raising practices.

But Froug said: "It is hard to imagine what else (Conese) had to do in order to complete the crime he attempted, other than perhaps to hold out his hand to accept the victim's contribution."

Therefore, at the very least, Conese is guilty of attempting to solicit improper compensation, a second-degree misdemeanor, she argued.

The court has 45 days to rule.

E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com

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