Sunday, October 24, 1999

Voluntary campaign donations questioned

2% of salary goes to boss' campaign

The Cincinnati Enquirer

John F. Holcomb
        HAMILTON — Butler County Prosecutor John F. Holcomb doesn't face re-election for more than a year, but because most of his emplyees donate 2 percent of their salaries, he has one of the largest campaign funds of any county officeholder in Southwest Ohio.

        Butler County Prosecutor John F. Holcomb doesn't face re-election for more than a year, but because most of his employees donate 2 percent of their salaries, he has one of the largest campaign funds of any county officeholder in Southwest Ohio.

        The individual donations amount to hundreds of dollars -- sometimes more than $1,200 per employee. In many cases the money is transferred directly from employee bank accounts to Mr. Holcomb's campaign war chest. That ''kitty,'' with more than $155,000, contains more than some state senators and representatives raise.

biggest givers
        Once common but now widely discredited, employee contributions have been banned for state-level officeholders in Ohio. Critics say it should be stopped at the county level, too. They argue that it puts undue pressure on public employees, raises questions about favoritism among employees, and diverts public money into political campaigns.

        But for now it remains legal for county politicians like Mr. Holcomb as long as the donations are voluntary -- a word some of Mr. Holcomb's ex-employees said they wouldn'tuse to describe their contributions.

        They recall being presented with contribution forms when they were hired, or at a Christmas party where they also received notices about their annual pay raise. One ex-employee even received what looks like a bill for the “balance unpaid” to the Prosecutor John Holcomb Committee.

        In 1998, 62 of 76 employees, excluding law clerks, were giving to the campaign by periodic personal checks or automatic bank account debits, county records show.

        Last year, in a non-campaign year, his campaign spent $61,297. Much of it went toward dozens of charities and civic groups. According to campaign records, $2,660 went to season tickets for the Reds and Bengals, which Mr. Holcomb said he made available for employee use.

        When attorney Craig Hedric accepted a job in Mr. Holcomb's office in late 1986, he said he didn't feel he had much choice but to sign a contribution form.

        “It was in your packet of documents you received as a new employee,” he said, adding that the form was already filled out to shift 2 percent of his paycheck to Mr. Holcomb's fund. “Nothing was ever said about it; it was just there. When I saw it, I just signed it because I thought that was what was expected.”

        Mr. Hedric left the prosecutor's office in 1987 to go into private practice.

        Mr. Holcomb vehemently disputes that anyone is pressured to give.

        “That's just garbage. That's bull manure,” he said. “I'm sure if they felt bad about it, they wouldn't do it.”

        Robin Piper, a former assistant prosecutor for Mr. Holcomb, is his Republican opponent in the 2000 election. Although Mr. Piper paid the 2 percent for most of the 13 years he worked for Mr. Holcomb, he denounces the practice because he thinks employees are giving under duress.

        Six other ex-employees also spoke with The Enquirer about the practice on condition of anonymity. All but one still work in law offices that might have dealings with Mr. Holcomb; they said they feared their law firms might be treated unfavorably by the prosecutor if their names were made public.

        None of the ex-employees said Mr. Holcomb personally told them to give to the campaign fund. They said they learned about it indirectly, often through fellow employees.

        “(Co-workers) kept saying that, if you don't give, you're going to get fired,” one former worker said, although no one provided proof that anyone was ever fired for not contributing. “(They) would say you were not a team player if you didn't pay the 2 percent.”

        Others said that authorization forms deducting money from their paychecks — and, as of August 1995, from their bank accounts — were presented under circumstances that made them feel they were required to sign.

        At a Christmas luncheon at the Hamiltonian Hotel in the early 1990s, prosecutors' employees were given 2 percent forms along with notices of their next pay raises — pieces of adding-machine tape showing the calculations, one ex-employee said.

        Mary Sue Predit, Mr. Holcomb's office administrator, and three assistant prosecutors said they never heard anyone complain and they believed the contributions were given willingly.

        Mrs. Predit said she doesn't understand why anyone would assume they had to sign. “I wasn't standing over them saying, "Here, sign this thing,'” she said. “If they didn't sign it, fine. That would be their choice.”

        Mr. Holcomb said raises are not tied to contributions.

        But County Auditor Kay Rogers, a Republican, observed: “If you get 2 percent of everything they make, you get a raise every time they do. Isn't that just peachy? How can you prove that you didn't give them raises just so you can get more money from them?”

        Whenever an officeholder accepts money from his employees, suspicions naturally arise, said state Rep. Jeff Jacobson, R-Dayton, who has introduced legislation that would outlaw this method of fund-raising. Although the measure has bipartisan support, he expects a tough battle because the practice has been too lucrative for officeholders.

        Over a three-year period, based on annual campaign finance reports, Mr. Holcomb's employees gave $108,784 — accounting for 90 percent of the total contributions to his cam paign coffers.

        “You can't help but treat people differently if you're that dependent on the money you're getting from them,” Mr. Jacobson said.

        He said this practice raises questions about whether the officeholder's personnel decisions are made in the public's interest — or in the best interests of his campaign.

        Further, it thwarts the political process by giving the incumbent a constant flow of campaign cash, he said.

        Rep. Jack Ford, D-Toledo, supports Mr. Jacobson's bill. “As long as you allow candidates to raise money in their office, they'll bang that drum all day long,” he said.

        “I think it starts all kinds of competition and pressure” among employees who think contributing might help curry favor with the boss, Mr. Ford said, “so it's better not to have it.”

        Mr. Holcomb, 62, said the so-called “2 Percent Club” has been a fixture throughout his 35 years in Butler County politics, and he sees nothing wrong with it.

        In the late '60s and early '70s, “all employees of every county office knew they were responsible to dig up some money come election time, because if the boss doesn't have a job, you don't have a job,” he said.

        Mr. Jacobson said allowing voluntary contributions “is a glaring weakness in the law and it's waiting for someone to take advantage of it ... elected officials who do this, they say it's voluntary, but it's really not.”

        He said the practice has occurred in both political parties, and it's “despicable.”

        “When a government official turns his office into a milking parlor and milks his employees for contributions, that is not what public service is all about,” he said.

        Mr. Holcomb became indignant when questioned about the practice and shouted, punctuated with thumping on his desk, “Never once in my life has anybody ever questioned it! Never, ever, once!”

        Mr. Jacobson, who has been on the lookout for the 2 Percent Club statewide, called the situation with Mr. Holcomb's fund raising, “the most egregious example I've ever seen ... Comparing this to other cases is like comparing Meijer to the corner grocery store.”

        Having held his office since 1973, Mr. Holcomb last ran in a contested election in 1988. Mr. Holcomb, the lone Democrat holding countywide elected office in Butler County, defeated Randy Rogers, who is now a county probate judge.

        Carlos Todd, chairman of the county Republican Party, said it was tough to find an opponent to pit against Mr. Holcomb.

        “You can't run just anybody against a person like John Holcomb, with the size war chest that he has, and the fact that he has been around for years and can be really intimidating,” Mr. Todd said.

        Despite lacking political opposition in the 1992 and 1996 elections, Mr. Holcomb said he continued to accept employee contributions because “the reason everybody's anxious to do it, and they like to do it, is that they know the money goes strictly for good purposes.”

        Mr. Holcomb said he thought the employee contribution rate in his office — about 80 percent — sounded low.

        “Is that all it is? I'd think it would be a lot more than that,” he said. “The ones who don't pay, they're letting their teammates carry them on their back. It would p--- me off if I were an employee.”

        Mr. Holcomb said that, in his view, employee donations are “just a little like union dues.”

        He said he was surprised to learn that Mrs. Predit, his campaign treasurer, doesn't give regular donations. He chided her about “owing the kitty,” but Mrs. Predit later said she knew Mr. Holcomb was joking, and she didn't feel intimidated into paying.

        Mrs. Predit, who is paid about $60,000 a year, said she donates hundreds of hours a year maintaining the campaign fund's records. She has worked for Mr. Holcomb since 1974.

        The lowest-paid employee who contributed to the campaign last year gave $380 of her $19,000 gross pay.

        Mr. Holcomb, whose annual salary is about $93,000, was asked how he felt about employees at low pay levels contributing 2 percent of their salaries. He replied: “They didn't get this job by a civil-service test. They got it because I gave it to them. And if they want me to be re-elected, which they all do, they ought to contribute to that effort in some way, shape or form.”

        Several staffers say they are glad to give.

        “I know it takes money to run a political campaign, and I have no problem supporting my boss,” said Assistant Prosecutor Richard Hyde, who gave $974 of his $48,708 salary in 1998, plus $275 at the annual golf outing.

        First Assistant Prosecutor Dan Eichel, who also gives to the campaign, said no one has ever complained about the contributions to him. “I give because this is the prosecutor that I want to prosecute cases in this county,” he said.

        Certainly, some public employees do want to support their boss' campaign fund, because they think he's good at what he does, said Peg Rosenfield, election laws lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “But if you allow it to be voluntary, how do you prove when pressure is applied?” she asked.

        Based upon the high contribution rate among the prosecutor's employees, Ms. Rosenfield said, “There's no doubt in my mind that they're doing this under duress. But unless you can get somebody to come forward and swear that it's under duress, I don't know if there's anything that can be done about it.”

        Mr. Holcomb said if employees feel pressure, it's not coming from him. He also said he doesn't keep track of who contributes. But he did say his political opponent, Mr. Piper, “stiffed the kitty for like $1,500” when he left the office in March 1998.

        Mr. Holcomb quickly added, “I didn't even know about it until Mary Sue (Predit) told me.”

        Told about Mr. Holcomb's remarks, Mr. Piper replied, “If it's voluntary, how can someone say anyone "stiffed the kitty?' ... Somebody is keeping track for him — and that's the whole thing about this operation. That way he can say he doesn't do it himself.”

        Mrs. Predit said employees started receiving contribution forms in 1982. She said she “explained this was an option” to new employees who were hired before mid-1995.

        But Mr. Piper says that, in his 13 years with the office, “I never heard the word "option' used along with the 2 percent ... You're told that everyone does it; that you have to do it.”

        In 1995, with a big push from Mr. Jacobson, Ohio law changed and prohibited public employees from having political donations taken directly from their paychecks. That law also forbids anyone from soliciting county-level employees for contributions to their employer, the Ohio Attorney General's Office said.

        Defining what constitutes “soliciting” is key, said Philip Richter, executive director of the Ohio Elections Commission.

        One former employee of Mr. Holcomb's office says she thought she was solicited when she received a bank-deduction form dated Aug. 22, 1995, but that was one day before the new anti-solicitation law took effect. However, in 1996 that employee received a document that appears to be a bill for the “balance unpaid” and “total due” to the Prosecutor John Holcomb Committee — a document provided to The Enquirer.

        Mrs. Predit remembers the bank-deduction forms being distributed, and said, “(The employees) had indicated they wanted to do this or they would not have received one.” She says since the law changed, she doesn't approach anyone about giving to the campaign; they approach her. And since then, Assistant Prosecutor Victoria Daiker said, Mr. Holcomb has specifically told her and others not to ask new employees to give.

        As for the “bill,” Mrs. Predit said, “there was no intent on my part to bill anyone.” While the document may resemble a bill, she said, “because I give them that does not mean they have to pay.”

        Mrs. Predit said she recalls only sending a couple such notices, and believes she did so only in response to employees' queries about how much they “owed.”

        Using the word “owed” reveals a mindset that should not be present under the circumstances, Mr. Jacobson said.

        “Political contributions are supposed to be voluntary. A public employee doesn't "owe' his boss anything other than a hard day's work,” he said. “When the boss' campaign tells an employee they owe money, it's pretty clear that they're telling the employee he doesn't have any choice in the matter.”

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