Thursday, May 27, 2004

Fox faces ethics complaint

Charge: Travel expenses falsified

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WEST CHESTER TWP. - An Ohio Ethics Commission complaint has been filed against Butler County Commissioner Michael A. Fox, saying he falsified travel expenses in 2002.

West Chester developer Charles W. Chappell, a fellow Republican, filed the 279-page document filled with county purchase orders and Fox's copied receipts with the Columbus office. He acknowledged that the complaint was in retaliation for Fox's attempt to take over the county Republican Party Central Committee in the March primary.

It's a new salvo in the simmering battle between Fox, a maverick former state legislator and one of the top vote-getters in this GOP-dominated county, and party activists. Top Republican officials mediated a job-swapping agreement that avoided what could have been a bitter primary race for Fox this year, but the party has still declined to endorse him for re-election.

Chappell charged that Fox failed to report $14,239 of his $18,105 travel expenses, citing county records. Fox said he spent only $3,866 on the financial disclosure statement he filed on April 15, 2003.

"Who travels to Washington, D.C., twice, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles twice, Spokane, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Chicago, Montreal and Seattle ... all in one year, and honestly believes he spent only $3,866?" asked Chappell in his letter to the commission.

According to Chappell, county purchase orders showed that Dennis Nichols, Fox's administrative assistant, was reimbursed $7,344 by the county for Fox's travel expenses. The county paid $9,942 to the vendor for Fox's travel, and reimbursed Fox $819 for travel expenses.

Ohio law requires public officials to list any payments or reimbursements for their travel - or travel arrangements made for their use by "any other person" - in connection with official duties, said David Freel, ethics commission executive director.

An Enquirer review of the complaint, however, found that Fox was justified in excluding some travel expenses. State law does not require Fox to list travel to conventions of national or state organizations for which the county pays membership dues. That would exempt $3,130 in travel to National Association of Counties meetings in 2002.

Fox said Wednesday he was not aware of the complaint. He said he used the $3,866 amount based on a computer printout from the county auditor's office.

"The travel related to the county is a matter of record. If the auditor has other documentation with different amounts, we'll just amend the report," said Fox, who is being challenged for re-election by West Chester Township Trustee Catherine Stoker and independent J. Michael Best.

Said County Auditor Kay Rogers: "If Mike didn't turn in the right information, it's our fault. If he's doing it this way, then there are probably other people (in the county) who are doing it wrong." Freel said he could not speak about the specifics of the case because of state confidentiality requirements.

Last year, Domestic Relations Court Judge Leslie Spillane, who helped Chappell compile the report, blasted Fox for spending 10 times more on travel than each of the other two commissioners in 2002. Her remarks came after Fox issued an extensive report criticizing Butler County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts.

Chappell, a Union Centre investor who has made millions from the Interstate 75 interchange which Fox authored legislation to help build, said Fox "made a whole group of people angry" by challenging party Central Committee members in the March 2 primary. Chappell's son, John, was one of 31 incumbents who lost their seats.


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