First of two parts
With its cinder-block walls and exposed concrete floor, the storage room on the third floor of Lucas County's Family Court Center would seem an unlikely attraction for photography.
Yet recently, a pack of young Republicans and their lawyer, cameras and video recorder in hand, plunged into these stark quarters in downtown Toledo to search for county Board of Elections records.
Led by Kelly Bensman, 32, a member of the Lucas County Republican Party executive committee and a close associate of Chairman Jon Stainbrook, the group was there to inspect materials related to the March, 2008, primary election that minted scores of new GOP precinct captains who later powered Mr. Stainbrook to the chairman's seat in June, 2008.
Although Mr. Stainbrook won the chairmanship, he accused staff and members of the elections board - particularly the two fellow Republican board members, Patrick Kriner and Lynn Olman - of colluding with the former GOP leadership against him.
On this particular morning, the storage room became the latest battlefield in a more than yearlong struggle between so-called new guard and old guard county Republicans.
Leading the new guard is Mr. Stainbrook, 45, a longtime GOP activist and past front man of a local punk band called The Stain.
In 2005, he and former party insider Joe Kidd took on the GOP establishment that was run at the time by Chairmen Tom and Bernadette Noe.
Mr. Kidd, a former executive director of the county elections board, cooperated with the FBI in providing evidence that helped convict Noe of breaking campaign finance laws.
Mr. Stainbrook sided with Mr. Kidd.
Local Republican leaders ostracized Mr. Stainbrook and Mr. Kidd for taking on the influential Noes, who hobnobbed with George W. Bush and former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.
On the other side of the Republican fray are Mr. Olman and Mr. Kriner, who owe their posts to the Noes.
The Noes left Toledo in disgrace in 2006 after Tom Noe was convicted of illegally funneling $45,000 to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and stealing $13.7 million from a rare-coin fund he managed for the state of Ohio.
Noe was handcuffed and taken first to a federal prison to serve a 27-month federal sentence and now is serving an 18-year state sentence at Hocking Correctional Facility in southeastern Ohio.
The notoriety of her husband's fall drove Mrs. Noe to flee her hometown and move to the couple's $5 million oceanfront home in the Florida Keys, where she's a practicing lawyer and where state law permits her to hold onto her last remaining property. Long gone are the $1 million Lake Erie home, the Maumee River condo, and luxury cars and collectibles.
By last year, emboldened with the support of a close, motivated corps of associates, Mr. Stainbrook worked to recruit nearly 170 people to run in the central party committee races and help him win the GOP chairmanship.
Mr. Stainbrook insists that removing Mr. Olman and Mr. Kriner from the elections board is necessary to purge the last vestiges of the Noe clique and ensure a fair and competent local voting system.
"A good, functioning Board of Elections would be a clear and transparent Board of Elections," Mr. Stainbrook said. "It's obvious from what Kelly's found that it's a complete rats' nest and it needs to get cleaned out."
The party's executive committee, which is under Mr. Stainbrook's leadership, voted in May to declare Mr. Kriner's most recent appointment to the board in January, 2008, invalid because the meeting at which he was selected wasn't open to the public.
Mr. Stainbrook sought to install himself on the elections board in Mr. Kriner's place.
However, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner determined in June that Mr. Kriner was rightfully appointed and refused to remove him from his seat.
Mr. Stainbrook said he is planning "legal action" to remove Mr. Kriner.
Mr. Stainbrook, along with Ms. Bensman and Meghan Gallagher, another close associate and current chairman of the party's central committee, has accused past and present elections board officials of multiple misdeeds, including fixing at least one election, destroying documents that would reveal wrongdoing, and allowing the downloading of obscene images onto county computers during work hours.
Members of the elections board strongly dispute Mr. Stainbrook's claims and say they're mystified by what they call his associates' seemingly endless records hunt and finger-pointing.
Ms. Bensman has filed a lawsuit against the elections office, accusing staff and the board of failing to provide her access to public records in their custody.
The suit is before the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals, which in February ordered elections officials to turn over thousands of public records to her.
She said many of those records have yet to be produced by John Borell, an assistant county prosecutor who is the elections board's lawyer.
A court official said the appellate judges won't comment on an ongoing case, but confirmed they have continued to grant Mr. Borell's request for extensions in turning over the remaining public records to Ms. Bensman.
Mr. Kriner, the elections board's chairman, said Mr. Stainbrook is now "just digging to throw dirt."
"There is no corruption - there is no organized vendetta against Jon Stainbrook," said Mr. Kriner, also a former party chairman.
"Does he have facts to support this? Does he have information that supports corruption and race-fixing at the Board of Elections?" Mr. Kriner asked.
Mr. Stainbrook believes he now does.
Based mainly on Board of Elections documents retrieved through Ms. Bensman's public-records lawsuit, Mr. Stainbrook accuses the board of:
•Fixing a 2006 precinct race in Sylvania Township to defeat Ms. Gallagher.
•Failing to count the ballots of six Stainbrook recruits in the March, 2008, precinct committee election.
•Shredding public records without state approval.
•Destroying documents sought in ongoing lawsuits.
•Misleading the public about the damage done to elections records in a February fire.
•Allowing the county GOP's former executive director, Joanne Wack, to sign her name to documents that required candidates' signatures.
•Failing to monitor an elections employee who downloaded obscene photos on his Board of Elections computer.
Changing the outcome of an election in 2006 is the most serious charge Mr. Stainbrook levels against the elections board.
In May of that year, Ms. Gallagher and Thomas Nichols, Jr., were running as write-in candidates in a precinct race in Sylvania Township for the GOP central committee.
Mr. Nichols was favored by the old guard, and Ms. Gallagher was in the Stainbrook camp.
The day of the election, Ms. Gallagher says, board employees told her she appeared to have won the race 11 to 3, although some provisional ballots had yet to be counted.
Yet three weeks later, the board - including Mr. Olman and Mr. Kriner - declared Mr. Nichols the official winner, with 12 votes to Ms. Gallagher's 11.
Board members decided to accept nine provisional ballots for Mr. Nichols on which voters, in many cases, wrote "Nichols" rather than "Thomas Nichols, Jr."
But Ms. Gallagher maintained that she received 12 votes, and therefore, the race should have been declared a tie and decided by coin toss.
To support her claim, she pointed to the official "precinct canvass write-in sheet" document from the Board of Elections listing 12 vote tally marks for her but giving her credit for receiving only 11 votes.
Ms. Gallagher now believes elections board officials fixed the outcome because of her association with Mr. Stainbrook.
She contended that several months after the vote, Dennis Lange, an elections board official and past GOP interim chairman, told her after her continued protests that "politics is a man's game and you need to know your place, and that's on the sidelines."
The alleged remark infuriated Ms. Gallagher, who said, "Dennis Lange's comment showed me that they intentionally kept me from sitting on the central committee."
Mr. Lange, now a Republican recruiting clerk at the elections board, said Ms. Gallagher's claim is a "bald-faced lie."
Mr. Kriner said this month he again reviewed the records from the 2006 race and counted only 11 votes for Ms. Gallagher, even though a record obtained by The Blade tallying the votes in the race indicates she received 12 "valid write-in votes."
More recently, Mr. Stainbrook accused Mr. Lange of downloading obscene photos at work on a Board of Elections computer - violating the county's computer policies.
The GOP chairman said some computer records turned over by the elections board uncovered six gag photos on Mr. Lange's computer.
One photo shows a nude middle-age man done up as "Spider-Man" wearing only blue, red, and black body paint; another is of a man in a cowboy hat with his pants down, smiling and holding a beer bottle and standing behind a fake sheep.
Ms. Bensman said the photos indicate how at least one elections official has been goofing off and wasting taxpayer money.
Mr. Lange admitted to The Blade that he viewed the photos at work, but said a friend inadvertently sent them to him at work instead of at home.
The friend, Tim Reynolds, now an elections board employee, sent the photos in an e-mail to Mr. Lange in October, 2005.
The message read, "Since Halloween is almost here, I thought I might give you a few costume ideas."
Ms. Bensman said she has also discovered six absentee ballots or ballot envelopes of Mr. Stainbrook's precinct recruits for the March, 2008, central committee election that the board never counted.
The elections board did not register absentee ballot returns from Adam Jessen, Jim Izbinski, Charles Schinke, Jeff Cromwell, Joseph Duncan, and Ron Theiss.
Most of the candidates, expecting problems, also cast provisional ballots.
But Mr. Stainbrook said it is always unfortunate when an elections board passes over someone's ballot. "You cannot have faith in your Board of Elections that your vote is going to be counted," Mr. Stainbrook said.
Missing records are at the heart of another dispute at the Board of Elections. Ms. Bensman accused Elections Director Linda Howe, a Democrat, and her employees of destroying and losing documents crucial to her lawsuit and a separate suit brought two years ago by a former elections office employee, Patrice Webster.
The elections board is required to follow directives from the Ohio secretary of state for the timely disposal of certain types of documents. Ms. Bensman accused Ms. Howe of destroying voter machine data from 2006 called "test decks" that should have been preserved, then creating back-dated documents to cover the unauthorized destruction.
Test decks are paper cards that can indicate whether a vote-counting machine was functioning properly. Ms. Bensman said the test decks are key to determining whether all votes in an election are counted. Now she fears these records are gone.
She showed The Blade a record titled "Certificate of Records Disposal" with a date stamp of May 5, 2009, but with a "proposed date of disposal" of Feb. 25, 2009. Hand-written on the record next to test decks was "DESTROYED."
"I'm not sure whether there's something sinister going on or it's just plain incompetence," Ms. Bensman said.
So were the test decks destroyed?
"I have three employees on the third floor of family court going through every 2006 box and if they don't find it today, then I have no choice but to say they were destroyed," Ms. Howe recently told The Blade.
Ms. Bensman has been locking horns with the elections board since filing her first public records request in January, 2008. She believes the board is obstructing her from seeing the most damaging records that would show elections malpractice.
Unable to obtain records from the elections office, she filed her lawsuit last July, days before Jill Kelly, the former Republican elections board deputy director, went on indefinite sick leave.
Ms. Bensman accused Ms. Kelly of mismanagement, withholding public records, and lying to protect Mr. Stainbrook's political foes. Ms. Kelly was hired for the job in May, 2004, after being recruited by Mrs. Noe, who was then chairman of the Board of Elections.
Democrat Gary Johnson, one of the four elections board members, told The Blade that he believes some former elections board staffers were unfair in their treatment of Mr. Stainbrook and his associates in the lead-up to his 2008 chairmanship.
"It's not something that I can prove. It's not something I can sit there and tell you case by case it was being done. Sometimes you just get a feeling," Mr. Johnson said.
Citing an example of improper behavior, Mr. Johnson recalled how Ms. Kelly in April, 2008, allowed Wack, then the county GOP's executive director, to file a legal notice for the GOP's organizational meeting after the election board's 4:30 p.m. closing time, a violation of office policy.
"I didn't think that was fair," Mr. Johnson said. "I felt that was abusing the power of the office and I made that known."
Ms. Kelly denied partisan activity at the board, previously calling Mr. Stainbrook's allegations "absolutely, categorically untrue." She declined to comment on Mr. Johnson's recent accusation.
Wack, whom a close associate of Mr. Stainbrook uncovered as a convicted felon last year and who resigned citing media intrusion into her personal life, didn't respond to messages seeking comment.
Ms. Bensman's records lawsuit also uncovered January, 2008, campaign finance documents of three former Republican candidates that have Wack's personal signature in place of the candidates' signatures, even though the instructions say, "Valid only if signed by candidate."
Asked its assessment on the continued squabbles between the county's GOP and elections board, the office of Secretary of State Brunner issued a statement:
"This office feels that the Lucas County Board of Elections has made excellent progress in the last year. Additionally, the Lucas County elections board performed well for the voters there during the administration of the 2008 presidential election."
Ms. Bensman was less sanguine. "If the Board of Elections is going to lie about public records and use the office to play partisan politics, the Board of Elections shouldn't be trusted to count our votes," she said.
TOMORROW: Former leaders of the local Republican Party emptied coffers before turning the office over to Jon Stainbrook.
Contact JC Reindl at: