By Janice Morse
Enquirer staff writer
The Ohio Supreme Court has reinstated the conviction of a Butler County attorney and former elections official in a campaign-finance scandal that sent ripples through Butler County political circles in 2000.
In a 5-2 decision released Wednesday, the court said Mark Conese, while serving as an official for the county elections board and the county Democratic party, violated state law when he sought a political contribution from Brent Dixon, a part-time board employee, in a meeting that Dixon secretly tape-recorded on March 1, 2000.
Besides sending the criminal case back to Butler County Common Pleas Court for resentencing, the Supreme Court also took disciplinary action against Conese's law practice. For two years, another lawyer will monitor his conduct. It was unclear whether Conese would be able to appeal the decision.
A jury convicted Conese of a misdemeanor charge of soliciting improper compensation in 2002. A visiting judge suspended a six-month jail term for Conese and ordered him to pay a $250 fine.
But the conviction prohibits Conese, a former Domestic Relations Court judge, from holding a position of public trust or public office for seven years.
Conese was elated last year when an appeals court reversed the conviction. But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court said the appeals court's interpretation of Ohio law was incorrect. The appeals court had ruled that Dixon was not "coerced" because he never actually made the contribution Conese sought. But the Supreme Court said just making a threat constitutes coercion, regardless of whether the person complies.
Dixon, who was told his job could be in jeopardy if he didn't increase his financial contributions, responded by turning Republican, along with other members of his influential family.
Meanwhile, Conese, a long-time member of the Democratic party in Republican-dominated Butler County, became Ohio's first elections board member removed from office in at least a decade. The secretary of state ousted him in 2001 because of "clear and convincing evidence" of misconduct in the Dixon case.
Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper said Wednesday's Supreme Court decision is important because it helps better define Ohio laws on pressuring public servants into making campaign contributions.
Conese said he was disappointed in the decision and would try another appeal on three issues that he wouldn't disclose. "We will win eventually - and I never coerced Mr. Dixon," Conese declared.
But Piper said he doubted a second appeal was possible.
"There is no procedure that I am aware of that would allow him to go back to the court of appeals on issues that have been resolved," Piper said. "As far as we are concerned, the case is over with."
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