Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Time in Columbus tarnished Deters
Fund-raising scandal in treasurer's office a distraction
By Dan Horn and Jim Siegel
Enquirer staff writers
As he shook hands and smiled for the cameras Monday at the Board of Elections, Joe Deters looked as if nothing had changed in his five years away from Hamilton County.
Friends and former co-workers greeted him warmly, and Republican Party officials hailed him as a favorite-son candidate who would restore dignity to a county prosecutor's office torn by a sexual-harassment scandal.
But Deters returns home with more political baggage than he's ever carried before.
His five years as Ohio's treasurer have been the roughest of his career and have left him tainted by a campaign-finance scandal that led to the criminal conviction of two associates.
He also faced a special prosecutor's investigation in Hamilton County that examined whether Deters or anyone on his staff attempted to cover up a theft from the evidence room while he was prosecutor in 1996.
Neither investigation concluded that Deters broke the law, but both raised questions about the ethics and politics of the former - and possibly future - county prosecutor.
Democrats say they intend to ask those questions often in the six weeks remaining before the Nov. 2 election.
Deters is vying with as many as four other write-in candidates to replace Prosecutor Mike Allen, who took his name off the ballot Monday after admitting to an affair with a female employee who has sued him for harassment.
"The bottom line is there are some significant issues to be discussed," said Tim Burke, co-chairman of the county's Democratic Party. "This is not Mr. Clean coming back to clean up a badly tarnished office. He's leaving an office tarnished in Columbus."
While it's unclear whether the scandals will hurt Deters with Hamilton County voters, his problems in Columbus add a dynamic to the race that neither he nor the Democrats have seen before.
Deters' reputation as a political heavyweight made for a smooth climb up the GOP ladder in Hamilton County. And by 1996, he was such an imposing figure that the Democrats couldn't find a lawyer to run against him for prosecutor.
But state politics have been less kind. He fended off a tough challenge to hold onto the treasurer's office in 2002 and then took a political beating during the 14-month investigation into his campaign finances.
"His armor's got a few chinks in it," said Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University who has worked on political campaigns for Democrats. "I'd give the Democrats a chance in this one."
Deters described the campaign finance investigation, which was conducted from Cuyahoga County, as "despicable" and politically motivated.
"That's just statewide politics. It's tough, and it's nasty," Deters said. "We went through a 14-month grand jury investigation, and they had nothing. I don't think it's an issue for voters anywhere."
But Thomas Sammon, the special prosecutor who oversaw the investigation, said Deters bears at least some responsibility for the conduct of associates in his office, even if he did not break the law.
Deters' former chief of staff, Matthew Borges, and former fund-raiser Eric Sagun pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in July.
Court documents said Borges gave preferential treatment to certain brokers who contributed to Deters' campaign. And Sagun was accused of soliciting a $50,000 donation from Cleveland broker Frank Gruttadauria for the Hamilton County Republican Party, when both knew the money was really intended for Deters' campaign.
"There's certainly enough items there as far as Joe Deters is concerned for him to offer an explanation to the public," Sammon said. "He at least should apologize to the public for whatever damage they may have done in their capacities."
As the grand jury investigated Deters' ties to Gruttadauria last year, a special prosecutor in Hamilton County examined the possibility of a cover-up in the theft from the evidence room in 1996.
That case also ended with no criminal charges against Deters.
To Democrats, Deters' decision to run for prosecutor is a shrewd political move made necessary by his troubles in Columbus. They say a Deters victory would allow him to rehabilitate his reputation in a job he's done before, and in a county where the campaign-finance scandal got much less media attention than in Cleveland or Columbus.
"This has been a story all around the state, but not down here for Saint Joe," Burke said. "This campaign has got to be about returning the prosecutor's office to respectability. How you do that with a guy who has had his own problems, I don't know."
Republicans, however, say Deters' return to county politics doesn't mean he's running from state politics. They still see him as a possible candidate for attorney general in 2006 and say they are confident the scandals won't cost him this fall with voters who remember his aggressive, tough-on-crime reputation.
"The voters around Hamilton County will remember what Joe was like as a prosecutor," said Mike Barrett, the county's GOP chairman. "That's what is going to be important."
Some Democrats concede that it might be tough to make Deters' problems in Columbus a problem for him in Hamilton County.
"There are some real questions surrounding his running of the treasurer's office," said State Sen. Mark Mallory, co-chairman of the county's Democratic Party. "I-275 acts like a force field sometimes. Nothing gets in, and nothing gets out."
Enquirer reporter Gregory Korte contributed to this report
MIKE ALLEN SCANDAL
Time in Columbus tarnished Deters
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