Saturday, January 22, 2000

Mayor resigns after sentencing for mail fraud




BY SHEILA McLAUGHLIN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MAINEVILLE — Sentenced to spend four months in a halfway house for committing federal mail fraud in a business deal, Mayor John Michael resigned Friday under pressure from the Warren County prosecutor.

        Mr. Michael remains free while he appeals the sentence because, he says, he should have been eligible for probation under federal sentencing guidelines.

        However, that was irrelevant to Prosecutor Tim Oliver, who demanded that Mr. Michael, still staunchly supported by village residents, step down as mayor immediately.

        “I told him, "It doesn't make any difference even if you got probation. You're a felon no matter which way it goes,'” Mr. Oliver told The Cincinnati Enquirer after talking with Mr. Michael by phone late Friday afternoon.

        State law bars convicted felons from holding public office. Mr. Oliver had met with Mr. Michael late last year and told him he would file a civil suit to remove him from office if he refused to resign.

        He said he reiterated that threat to Mr. Michael on Friday.

        After the sentencing hearing, Mr. Michael said he intended to step down officially early next week.

        But he no longer considered himself at the village helm. Village officials will decide later what to do about the vacancy.

        “I'd say John Michael ceased being mayor at 11:30 a.m.,” Mr. Michael said matter-of-factly at the Maineville home of friend Janet Testerman about 90 minutes after the hearing.

        There, more than a dozen residents, council members and relatives — many wearing green ribbons in a show of support — had waited anxiously all morning to hear whether Mr. Michael would go to prison.

        Maxine Taylor, a 25-year resident whose community activism at Mr. Michael's urging led to her election to council in November, greeted him with a warm embrace.

        “I told him, "Whatever the outcome is, I'll stand right beside you and hold your hand.' My heart goes out to him,” Mrs. Taylor said.

        She was among 32 people in the town of 1,000 who wrote letters to U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel in Cincinnati, asking for leniency.

        “I hate to see this. I told the judge, to take John from the town, you're going to make a big mistake,” Mrs. Taylor said.

        Judge Spiegel said he considered the letters and Mr. Michael's years in community service in opting for the lightest sentence under federal sentencing guidelines. Those guidelines are based on an offender's background as well as the crime, including any losses in a theft.

        Mr. Michael faced up to 14 months in prison after pleading guilty last summer to one count of mail fraud for defrauding Prudential Insurance Co. of $45,401 when he worked for the company as an agent.

        Judge Spiegel also ordered the 51-year-old financial planner to spend five months in home incarceration following release from a halfway house, to pay a $15,000 fine and to reimburse Prudential.

        Federal authorities accused Mr. Michael of using the mail to gain reimbursement from Prudential by submitting invalid expenses in 1993 and 1994. They said he included expenses for big items, such as furniture, which were never purchased.

        Mr. Michael doesn't deny he committed a crime by deceiving Prudential. However, he claims the money was his. He said the company had awarded him a $53,000 bonus for bringing in new business.

        Prudential required the agents to withdraw money from the program by submitting expenses, defense lawyer Martin Pinales said.

        Mr. Pinales contends that Mr. Michael had $51,000 in legitimate expenses, and that he chose to substitute larger items rather than report an endless list of smaller expenses.

        He claims that Prudential didn't suffer any loss because it actually owed Mr. Michael $2,000 more than he applied for in expenses. Given that, he says, Mr. Michael should have qualified for a lower sentencing rating that would have allowed probation.

        He expects that issue to be resolved by the federal appeals court in the next year.

        In the meantime, Mr. Michael said he was happy to be free.

        “I had no expectation. I anticipated the worst,” he said, adding that he intends to stay involved in the community despite having to give up the mayor's seat.

        Friday, he talked of plans to help organize this year's Maineville Crossroads Festival, which he founded, and to sponsor and offer seminars for boys' baseball teams.

        He said he was amazed and grateful for the show of support from Maineville residents.

        “It wasn't hard to stick by him. It's just because of the person that he is. He's helped the town,” Councilwoman Donna Lambert said.

       



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