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Published: Tuesday, 4/3/2001

Ex-state official avoids prosecution

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Melanie Mitchell committed wrongdoing as executive director of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, but she did not have a “plan to defraud the state or engage in any pattern of activity for personal benefit,” Inspector General Thomas Charles said.

A 29-page report released yesterday outlined several instances in which Ms. Mitchell improperly received reimbursement for travel expenses, used her state telephone and cell phone to make personal calls, and didn't follow state procedures on personnel decisions.

For example, Ms. Mitchell rented a Jacuzzi suite at a human rights conference she attended in North Carolina. On another occasion, she claimed and was reimbursed for five nights lodging, but stayed only four nights at a Kansas City conference.

But Mr. Charles said his report will not be forwarded to the Franklin County prosecutor for possible prosecution.

“I felt she paid back some money and she had resigned,” Mr. Charles said.

The civil rights commission accepted Ms. Mitchell's resignation Jan. 18.

On March 21, Ms. Mitchell wrote a check for $3,277 to the civil rights commission for payment of personal telephone calls billed to the state. Her attorney, Larry H. James of Columbus, said she does not owe the state any more money.

The inspector general, who is the state's corruption watchdog and is appointed by the governor, said he found instances of improper reimbursement of travel expenses to commissioner Altagracia Ramos, an appointee of then-Governor Voinovich.

Ms. Ramos was paid $558 for 2,087 miles she claimed she drove to and from conferences in Hartford and Philadelphia in 1998, the report states. The mileage from her home in Beavercreek, Ohio, to Hartford and then to Philadelphia is 1,427 miles.

Ms. Ramos missed 11/2 days of the Hartford conference and 21/2 days of the four-day conference in Philadelphia, the inspector general said.

Ms. Ramos, who lives just 75 miles from Columbus, stayed overnight in a Columbus hotel the night before the commission's monthly meetings 45 times from January, 1998, to August, 2000. The bill to taxpayers: $5,760 for lodging, meals, mileage, parking fees, and tips. She could not be reached for comment.

In October, 1998, Ms. Mitchell attended the National Association of Human Rights Workers conference in Denver. She rented a car at state expense for $348.91, which included a $50 upgrade for a Cadillac.

“It is difficult to understand why Ms. Mitchell would require a luxury automobile and how she could log 469 miles on the vehicle and also attend all conference activities. There was no reason to rent an automobile since all conference activities occurred at the [hotel] where she stayed,” the investigation said.

Mr. Charles said the travel reimbursements will be submitted to State Auditor Jim Petro to determine whether the state should take civil action to recover the money.

In June, 2000, E. Theophilus Caviness, then-chairman of the civil rights commission, signed a document that increased Ms. Mitchell's pay 15 percent - from $41 per hour to $47 per hour.

Aaron Wheeler, chairman of the civil rights commission, promised changes, including a requirement that commission members and staff write reports on what they learned at out-of-town conferences.



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