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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2004

Ex-official hopes ruling discourages false critics

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

But Mr. Burns said he is still pleased by the judgment filed on Monday in the Ottawa County Common Pleas Court against Elsebeth Baumgartner.

Mr. Burns, who retired at the end of 2002, said yesterday the ruling by visiting Judge Richard Markus vindicates him and other district leaders Mrs. Baumgartner had accused of wrongdoing.

"Chances are I will never collect any of that money, but that's not the issue," Mr. Burns said. "The issue is you just can't accuse people, without any basis, of being alcoholics, incompetent, criminals. It's just wrong, and I hope it's the message that's sent from that."

In his ruling, Judge Markus ruled that Mrs. Baumgartner made "false and wrongful statements" against Mr. Burns and "intentionally defamed the counterclaim plaintiff with actual malice." Judge Markus awarded Mr. Burns $50,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.

Mrs. Baumgartner, whose husband, Joseph, is a former school board member, has accused numerous public officials in Ottawa and Erie counties of corruption and other unlawful activity.

She filed a criminal complaint in November, 2000, that charged Mr. Burns and other district officials with misusing public money and enlisting law enforcement officials to cover up their actions. Her complaint included all of the district's school board members except her husband.

Authorities filed no charges against Mr. Burns or any of the other people named in the complaint.

In January, 2002, Mrs. Baumgartner publicly accused Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter and other investors in the Island Express ferry company of cocaine use and other crimes. She was convicted in July, 2002, in Ottawa County Municipal Court of making false statements about the investors and put on probation.

Mrs. Baumgartner was charged with violating her probation in September, 2002, and jailed. While on furlough from the Ottawa County jail, she fled to Texas, where she was arrested 2 1/2 weeks later.

She pleaded no contest to escape charges in April, 2003, and was jailed until that September. The same month, the Ohio Supreme Court disbarred her, saying she "made innumerable false accusations of wrongdoing" against public officials in northwest Ohio.

Mrs. Baumgartner has since been charged with violating her probation again and is under an arrest warrant from Ottawa County. She now lives in Florida.

Reached by phone yesterday, Mrs. Baumgartner denounced the ruling and said she'd appeal to the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals in Toledo.

"I don't know how people are going to be able to complain about their government in Ohio any more," she said. "You've got a court system that is absolutely broken. The citizens of Ottawa County cannot complain about their court system without being persecuted."

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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