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Published: Saturday, 11/10/2001

Prosecutor probes mishandling of liquor sales measure

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

The Lucas County prosecutor's office is investigating whether the director of the county elections board, her deputy, and other staff members mishandled a local measure governing liquor sales that was defeated in Tuesday's election.

The probe of Antoinette Szuch, the director; Larry Loutzenhiser, the deputy, and the others was started yesterday at the request of elections board Chairwoman Paula Ross and Vice Chairman Tom Noe.

Prosecutor Julia Bates could not be reached for comment.

At issue is a local option liquor sales measure, placed on the ballot by Airport Lounge owner Jim Fall, which was defeated, 146-87.

Had it been approved, it would have allowed him to sell mixed drinks and wine on Sunday at his bar, 7130 Airport Hwy., Holland. Currently he is allowed to sell only beer or nonalcoholic drinks on that day.

The problem is that up until about three weeks before the election, the measure was on the wrong precinct ballot - placed there erroneously by elections board personnel.

With campaign time running out, the elections board personnel discovered their mistake and, without the knowledge of the four-member board that oversees them, moved it to the proper precinct.

As a result, the Columbus-based company Mr. Fall hired for $7,000 to conduct the campaign to get the issue approved did all its work in the wrong precinct until it was told of the problem by the elections board eight days before ballots were to be cast.

The firm immediately moved its campaign efforts to the proper precinct, but the measure lost.

Under state law, local option liquor sales issues defeated at the polls must wait four years before being placed before voters again.

Mr. Fall said the mistake has caused a hardship.

“A lot of other bars in the area have that now, and I didn't want my customers going someplace else on a Sunday, finding out they liked the place, and then never coming back here,” he said.

“Competition is stiff. All I wanted to do was make a nickel. Why can't they get this thing right?”

Ms. Szuch and Mr. Loutzenhiser said they felt bad that the measure failed and conceded they made the mistake in identifying the proper precinct. They said they did what they could to fix the problem.

Mr. Fall has hired Columbus attorney Rick Brunner, an election-law expert, to investigate. Mr. Brunner said he is unsure what action will be taken.

Ms. Ross said she was “shocked” when she learned of the matter two days ago from a reporter.

Mr. Noe, who found out yesterday, declined comment, citing concerns the matter could end up in litigation.

Carlo Loparo, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, said plenty of questions need to be answered.

Ms. Ross said several actions by elections board staff members require scrutiny, including the decision by Ms. Szuch and Mr. Loutzenhiser to move the local option liquor sales measure from Springfield Township Precinct 8 to Springfield Township Precinct 1 once they discovered the measure was on the wrong ballot.

The pair said they decided together to make the switch, knowing that no petitions were on file in the board's office from registered voters in Precinct 1.

State law requires petitions to be filed in the precinct in which such a vote would be taken before the liquor measure may be placed on the ballot.

In addition, by the time the two staffers said the mistake was discovered, the filing deadline for petitions - Aug. 23, also as prescribed by state law - was long past.

Mr. Loutzenhiser had no comment when presented with a copy of a document - obtained by The Blade from the Ohio Division of Liquor Control - that indicates elections board personnel knew as early as Aug. 2 that the bar was in Precinct 1, not Precinct 8.

The document is a questionnaire from the liquor agency asking the board to identify the location of the Airport Lounge.

The form, completed and time-stamped on Aug. 2 by the board, identifies the home of the Lounge as “SPFD 1,” shorthand for Springfield Precinct 1.

Ms. Ross was critical of the decision by Ms. Szuch and Mr. Loutzenhiser to make the precinct switch without consulting the secretary of state's office or the county's elections board members.

Ms. Szuch and Mr. Loutzenhiser said it was their recollection that no board certification was needed to place issues on the ballot and that they did not feel the need to discuss the Airport Lounge matter with their superiors.

However, state law governing local option liquor sales measures is quite different than election law governing other measures, Mr. Loparo said.

Laws governing local option liquor measures are more strict, and all such measures must be certified by the county elections board members.

The Ohio Revised Code provides that “the elections board shall certify the sufficiency of signatures contained in the petition as of the time of filing and the validity of the petition as of the time of certification” to place a local option liquor sales issue on the ballot.

Ms. Ross was upset that Ms. Szuch and Mr. Loutzenhiser presented the original Airport Lounge measure to the elections board for certification - in the wrong precinct - 10 days after a deadline prescribed by state law.

State statute provides that local option liquor measures must be certified by the board 66 days before the election. The deadline this year was Sept. 2. Ms. Szuch and Mr. Loutzenhiser presented the Airport Lounge measure to the board for certification on Sept. 11.

To get state approval for the upgrade of his liquor license, Mr. Fall, who runs the bar at night after taking care of a small family farm with his brother during the day, hired The Craig Group, Inc., a Columbus consulting firm, to jump through the necessary political hoops to get the measure approved.

Jacob Evans, a Craig Group staff member who specializes in designing and managing local option liquor sales campaigns, began handling the matter for the lounge in June.

He contacted the elections board to find out in which precinct the bar was located, and was told Springfield Township Precinct 8.

Board officials confirmed yesterday that the information was given to Mr. Evans.

In July, he mounted a petition signature drive, obtaining 207 signatures. He submitted them to the board Aug. 23, the filing deadline for issues for the Nov. 6 election.

The four-member elections board certified the measure to the November ballot along with 31 other measures and a large slate of candidates.

Ballots were printed listing the measure in Springfield Township Precinct 8.

Mr. Evans began to mount an aggressive campaign in September, first sending a promotional letter to the precinct's 740 registered voters, followed by personal contact with as many of the precinct's voters as possible.

Also, campaign literature was distributed, and telephone calls were made to voters.

Finally The Craig Group commissioned an opinion poll in Precinct 8 to determine where the campaign stood. It showed 62 per cent supported the measure.

Mr. Fall said he was pleased until a friend in Precinct 8 came into his bar on Oct. 28, little more than a week before the election, and said the Airport Lounge measure was not on his absentee ballot.

Mr. Fall called The Craig Group the next morning. Mr. Evans, in turn, called elections board officials. They responded with a letter dated the same day.

“Initially, it was determined that the location in question was in Springfield, Precinct 8, but because of an annexation, the location actually is in Springfield 1. We regret the confusion, but have made corrections to the ballot and the issue will now appear in Precinct 1,” Chuck Larkins, an elections board supervisor, wrote in the letter.



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