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Published: Thursday, 2/17/2005

Audit flags contributions in judge races

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

Six Democratic candidates for judgeships in Lucas County accepted what may have been improper campaign contributions last year, a preliminary audit of records on file with the Lucas County Board of Elections shows.

Judge William Skow of the state 6th District Court of Appeals, Common Pleas Judges Denise Dartt, Denise Navarre Cubbon, Thomas Osowik, and Gary Cook, and unsuccessful judicial candidate James Vail received a total of $9,000 from the county executive committee checking account, an apparent violation of Canon 7 established by the Ohio Supreme Court to govern all judicial races in the state.

Judge Skow, Judge Cook, and Judge Cubbon each received

$2,000, and the others each received $1,000, records show.

The canon says judicial candidates "shall not knowingly receive directly or indirectly" contributions "from a political party unless the contribution is made from a separate fund established by the political party solely to receive donations for judicial candidates and the political party reports on the contribution and expenditure statements filed by the party the name, address, occupation, and employer of each person who contributed" to the fund.

Photocopies of the checks made out to the candidates clearly show the contributions were drawn from the party's executive committee account. The party has a judicial account, but the latest campaign finance report from that account shows no contributions to candidates.

John Marshall, secretary to the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, which oversees conduct of lawyers in Ohio, said the board occasionally fields complaints of such problems with campaign contributions. He declined to comment on the seriousness of the matter.

The disclosure requirements for those who contribute to judicial campaign accounts "is to provide complete transparency" of those who give to potential judges, Mr. Marshall said.

Judicial candidates operate under rules established and enforced by the Ohio Supreme Court. Judicial candidates attend a mandatory training session before each campaign that includes a discussion of the restrictions on contributions to their campaigns, which are more stringent than nonjudicial candidates, he said.

Judge Skow, Judge Cubbon, and Judge Osowik said they were unfamiliar with the rule. Judge Cook, Judge Dartt, and Mr. Vail did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Jill Kelly, director of the county elections board, said the discrepancies cropped up during an audit of the party's campaign finance reports. Calling campaign finance "a complicated area" of the rules governing political campaigns, she said her office would work with the party to see what remedies are available.

"We will audit the party's report as carefully as we will audit everything else, and if we find that there is something that is wrong, illegal, or whatever, we will give them a chance to make corrections," Ms. Kelly said. If that can't be done, she said the matter could go to Columbus for action.

The candidates said they were unaware of the problem because Supreme Court rules demand they keep a distance from the fund-raising activities of their campaign committees.

"You generally know about how much money is in your account, but all those specifics, I stayed away from all of it," Judge Cubbon said. "I had bigger fish to fry than to worry about that."

Judge Osowik said he was aware he received a contribution from the party but said he had no idea from what account his committee was paid.

"I didn't know what fund it came from. I just assumed every candidate got one of those checks," he said. "I just thought it was something that all of the candidates got. I'm a judge. A judicial candidate can't have anything to do with that. None of us solicited anything from headquarters."

"The checks were just deposited. We assumed they were legit," said Judge Skow, who said he was not aware of the prohibition on receiving money from the general party account.

Nancy Norman, the party treasurer who signed most of the checks, said she simply followed the direction of then-party Chairman Sandy Isenberg, who also signed at least one check to Judge Skow. Ms. Isenberg disputed Ms. Norman's claim but said there was no sinister plan.

"Whatever happened, I think it was an honest mistake," Ms. Isenberg said, probably stemming from the lack of familiarity with rules governing the different party accounts. Ms. Isenberg and her leadership team took office in May after unseating Paula Ross in the race for party chairman.

She resigned as chairman on Monday, citing "irreconcilable differences" with other party leaders.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at:

fritz@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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