News: Heimlich Family Feud

Commissioner offers to settle 'defamation' claim

click to enlarge Karen and Peter Heimlich
Karen and Peter Heimlich

Lynne Congemi

Peter Heimlich and his wife, Karen Shulman, live in Atlanta.

As if the reelection campaign of Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich hasn't had enough trouble in recent weeks, CityBeat has learned that Heimlich's insurance company offered a $3,000 payment to settle a claim that the commissioner allegedly defamed his estranged brother.

Phil Heimlich's brother, Peter, has rejected the offer and is instead demanding a public retraction and apology from the commissioner for telling newspaper reporters and others that Peter has mental problems.

The settlement offer, which Phil Heimlich hasn't discussed publicly, is the latest salvo in a long, bitter family feud involving the commissioner, his brother and their father, Dr. Henry Heimlich, a prominent local physician and creator of the discredited "Heimlich Maneuver" to assist choking victims.

In an Aug. 25 letter to H. Louis Sirkin, Peter Heimlich's attorney, the Frankenmuth Mutual Insurance Co. of Michigan made the financial offer on behalf of Phil Heimlich. The letter, sent by senior claims specialist Douglas Conway, says, "Pleased be advised that the Frankenmuth Mutual Insurance Co. at this time offers the amount of $3,000 in full and final settlement of your client's claim."

The letter is a response to a February letter that Sirkin sent Phil Heimlich, alleging the commissioner was making "false and defamatory statements about (Peter's) mental health."

"It has come to our attention that you have been telling reporters, political acquaintances and friends that Peter is 'crazy,' 'mentally unstable' and the like," Sirkin wrote. "Not only are these statements entirely untrue, they are also per se damaging to Peter's reputation. In addition, the statements also falsely ascribe a stigmatic mental condition to Peter in an attempt to discredit him."

For the past several years Peter Heimlich has clashed with Phil and Henry Heimlich over the latter's assertions that the Heimlich Maneuver should be used to assist choking and drowning victims, which Peter has described as "medical fraud."

The American Red Cross recently reversed its policy and dropped its endorsement of the Heimlich Maneuver, reverting to pre-1985 guidelines of recommending back blows, which Peter Heimlich calls a vindication of his views.

The family feud has been reported over the years in The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati Business Courier and elsewhere.

"For some time Phil has been circulating false and defamatory statements about me," says Peter, who lives in an Atlanta suburb with his wife, Karen Shulman. "For instance, last year Phil told an Enquirer reporter that I 'had a history of mental illness and that the family was dealing with it.'

"My reputation's not for sale, and I think smearing somebody to stop them from telling the truth is contemptible. Phil has a history of stepping on people. This time he went too far."

Peter — who is working on a book about his efforts, tentatively entitled Outmaneuvered — might file suit against Phil Heimlich unless he receives an apology.

Robert Kraft, a spokesman for Henry Heimlich, said he wasn't aware of any settlement offer and doesn't represent Phil Heimlich. He declined further comment. Phil Heimlich couldn't be reached for comment.

The latest incident isn't the first time Phil Heimlich has butted heads with a sibling. Two years ago, during his last campaign for the county commission, his sister, Elizabeth, worked on the campaign of Heimlich's rival, Democratic candidate Dr. Jean Siebenaler.

It's also not the first time Phil Heimlich has offered money to settle a claim about alleged misconduct. In August 2004, Siebenaler's campaign withdrew a complaint from the Ohio Elections Commission after Heimlich agreed to make a $2,500 contribution to the National League of Women Voters. Siebenaler had lodged a complaint in 2002 against Heimlich and Clear Channel Communications, alleging they violated state law when Heimlich served as a talk show guest host for about a month on WKRC (550 AM).

Siebenaler had sought similar airtime, but Heimlich and Clear Channel claimed Heimlich wasn't yet a candidate at the time of the radio stint. Siebenaler, however, noted that Heimlich had been raising money for two years at the time and declared his intention to seek the commissioner's office in a 2001 filing.

In settling Siebenaler's complaint, Heimlich didn't admit wrongdoing. The settlement included a public statement from Heimlich that said, "It remains my position that my appearances did not violate any laws. Looking back, I do, however, understand that appearances as a guest host while a declared candidate raised questions of fairness and legality." ©