Fruitful guide to campaign finance reform

Tuesday, October 13, 1998

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

See if you don't think this is crazy. Not to mention wasteful.

Mike Schoeny, who runs a food distributing company in the West End, received certified mail from a Mr. Philip C. Richter, staff attorney with the Ohio Elections Commission. The letter might have been threatening something dire.

But it was hard to tell.

The letter said Schoeny Foods is under investigation for "one or more alleged violations of the Ohio campaign finance laws." Furthermore, "failure to file the affidavit of response may result in admission of the allegations and the Commission may proceed in making a determination in your case without your written response."

Bananagate

Well, we civilians and regular people may not know much about the mysterious workings of government. But most of us know instinctively that we would not like to have a government lawyer make any determinations on our account. Ever.

Mr. Richter thoughtfully sent along 20 pages of regulations in tiny print with ominous headings such as "penalties" and "attorney fees." The rules included a couple of Latin words just to make the information as baffling as possible.

Mike Schoeny, who is as plain and no-nonsense as his faux wood desk and gray painted office paneling, read the letter over a couple of times. Then he laughed.

"I finally figured out that they were talking about five cases of bananas," he said.

His company gave $50 worth of bananas to the Friends of the Zoo last April during the group's efforts to pass a $6.2 million operating levy. The organization filed a record of contributions, which included Schoeny's bananas.

The Hamilton County Board of Elections was obliged to notice that Schoeny Foods had not filed a notification of its contribution. So the matter, "pursuant to division C of Ohio Revised Code Section 3517.11" was referred to the Ohio Elections Commission.

Then Mr. Richter was bound by law to send out a big wad of threatening paper by certified mail, demanding a sworn and notarized reply. Instead of hiring an attorney, Mike Schoeny decided to handle this matter on his own. He doesn't have much time for foolishness or much patience with waste. He comes to work at 7:30 in the morning and usually works until 6:30 at night.

He walks through rows of vinegar and cooking oil and red beans to get to his office, which smells like onions and celery.

A direct response

Mike Schoeny's letter was direct and easy to understand, but of course he did not have the assistance of politicians and attorneys:

"I'm sorry we donated the bananas. We'll take them back if you'd like. Would that be OK? Maybe they fed them to the gorillas. Would that have been OK? I'm truly at a loss here. I really didn't know that I couldn't give bananas to the zoo, and it won't happen again."

The trouble is that Mike Schoeny is just a guy who wanted to do something nice for the zoo, a place where he has spent a lot of good times with his kids. He was not trying to buy an election.

That would have been much simpler. He could have spread money all over the place, to PACs, to political parties, to campaign funds. But he sent along some crates of fruit with his company name on the side.

Now he has been busted by the Ohio Elections Commission.

May I suggest that campaign finance reform be taken from the hands of politicians and lawyers and bureaucrats. Let's set up a Commission of Regular People. We could appoint, say, a farmer, a bus driver, a teacher and a waitress.

Oh, and the chairman could be a guy who knows how to write a letter anybody can understand.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com, call (513) 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and as a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition. Her new book, I Beg to Differ, is available at (800) 852-9332.

PULFER ARCHIVE