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Published: Monday, 5/22/2006

Tapping a county till

From all the fuss down in Perry County, it would appear that Larry Householder is performing some of the same ethical contortions in local government that he did in two terms as speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives.

Mr. Householder, who personified the Republican pay-to-play ethos when he was at the top of the legislative leadership in Columbus, is now auditor in Perry County, where he is involved in a scandal involving use of county employees to renovate a restaurant of which he is part owner.

Having retreated from the capital a step ahead of a federal investigation into the skimming of GOP campaign funds, Mr. Householder could find himself on the receiving end of a similar probe if the local prosecutor does his job.

According to published reports, at least four employees of the Perry County engineer's office have been working - on county time - to gut a restaurant in Zanesville in neighboring Muskingum County. Partners in the project, which is due to become a bar, include Mr. Householder; Kent Cannon, the Perry County engineer, and Thad Cooperrider, a Perry County commissioner.

The workers were supposed to make up the missed work, totaling some 342 hours, with uncompensated overtime for the county.

But such an arrangement has no basis in state law, which prohibits the use of public employees on private projects. While Mr. Householder et al deny any wrongdoing, the scheme still appears to be just one more variation on the age-old practice of tapping the public till for private enrichment.

Should anyone be surprised? Well, no.

As House speaker from 2001 through 2004, Mr. Householder led a GOP fund-raising machine that fed off the party's virtually complete political control of state government and sent a clear message to lobbyists that they had to ante up to get legislation passed.

Like indicted coin dealer Tom Noe, he was a "pioneer" fund-raiser for President Bush, enjoying power and prestige that opened doors in the White House.

But soon came accusations that the money machine had gone too far, and members of his own party alleged that the speaker and his consultants were overcharging GOP campaigns and skimming the excess. A federal grand jury investigated. Term-limited, Mr. Householder left the legislature and ran for local office.

Now, according to published reports, the federal investigation has evaporated, but news of the restaurant-renovation scam could take up the slack.

That will only happen, of course, if the Perry County prosecutor has the courage to take on a popular politician who maybe - just maybe - has carried his quest for personal power a little too far this time.

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