Ethics police seem in no hurry to investigate Sycamore Twp. officials for possible self-dealing with festival beer concession

More than two years after a complaint to the Ohio Ethics Commission about how Sycamore Township officials do business, nothing has come of it.

Dec 14, 2016 at 9:27 am

click to enlarge Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke wants to know what happened with his ethics complaint over an incident that happened in 2013.
Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke wants to know what happened with his ethics complaint over an incident that happened in 2013.

Acts of misconduct by elected officials can be shocking and disappointing when charges are filed and violators are trotted out in public. But how are citizens supposed to react when allegations are seemingly swept under the rug by the people investigating them?

Consider an episode that came to light in Sycamore Township in the spring of 2014.

The matter involved the township’s granting of the beer concession at its annual Festival in Sycamore in 2013. The festival takes place in July. Geriatric rockers like Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad and Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive excite the crowd. Cold beer offers relief from the heat.

As in other years, the right to sell beer at the 2013 event went to the Sycamore Township Republican Club Political Action Committee. The overlap between the township and the club was unmistakable: The club’s top two officers and one of its directors were the three sole members of the Sycamore Township Board of Trustees, the township’s governing body. Of the $24,241 grossed from festival beer sales, $17,500 went to the re-election campaigns of two of those trustees, according to the PAC’s 2013 campaign finance report.

That set off an ethical alarm in the head of Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. He filed a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission in Columbus. The act became public through a report in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“The very idea that incumbent trustees can give the Republican club they control the exclusive right to sell beer at the festival of the township they are elected to serve is outrageous,” Burke says. “The records show that the bulk of the money they raise out of that self-given right ultimately is used to fund their own political campaigns.”

Investigations by the Ohio Ethics Commission — even the admission of an investigation — are secret. As two years went by, Burke says he assumed that the commission was going to settle the matter with the Sycamore trustees. When nothing came of it, Burke says he called the commission last week for an update.

“They walked me through the three things they could do, which I knew,” he says. “It hadn’t been dismissed or settled. That led me to the conclusion that it’s been referred to the county prosecutor’s office.”

Last Friday, Burke wrote to Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, asking for any records forwarded him by the Ohio Ethics Commission. CityBeat wanted to ask Deters if the Sycamore flap had landed in his lap — and what he was doing with it — but two different spokespeople in his office did not return telephone calls last week. 

The three Sycamore Township trustees named in Burke’s complaint continue to sit on that board. Tom Weidman, president of Marketmaster International, received $12,500 in campaign contributions in 2013 from the PAC of the Sycamore Republican Club — of which he was president. Cliff Bishop, a Hamilton County courts bailiff and a club director, received $5,000 from the club’s PAC that year. The other trustee named in the complaint was Dennis Connor, who was vice president of the local Republican club.

If Deters is investigating the alleged ethics breach, he faces one small dilemma. In 2015, while Burke’s complaint was presumably under consideration, Weidman gave $250 to Deters’ re-election campaign. But unless that was proven to be a bribe or act of fraud, the gift doesn’t constitute ethical grounds to disqualify Deters from investigating the complaint against one of his political benefactors. 

“That’s not an issue under the Ohio ethics law,” said Paul Nick, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission.

CityBeat attempted to find out if Sycamore Township has amended its procedure for granting its festival concessions or if the local Republican club continues to staff the beer taps. CityBeat left repeated voicemail messages for Sycamore Township Administrator Greg Bickford but received no return phone calls. Weidman, Bishop and Connor did not respond to requests for comment. 

Weidman, though, did talk to the Enquirer in June 2014. In the article, he was quoted as saying that he saw nothing unethical about how the township awarded the beer concession for its festival. He said his Republican club paid a $2,500 festival sponsorship fee, allowing it to host a booth. He said concession vendors aren’t chosen by the board of trustees but by Sycamore’s Parks and Recreation Department.

But the head of that department, Mike McKeown, was himself was no arm’s-length decider of the beer concession. At the time of the 2013 festival, McKeown was a member of the Sycamore Republican Club board of directors. CityBeat tried to contact McKeown, by phone and by email, to no avail. 

Stephen Lazarus, an associate professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, says the ethics complaint “definitely” appears to have merit.

“It looks pretty obvious, particularly the misleading, if not absolutely false statement by the club president in 2014 saying that the Sycamore Board of Trustees didn’t award the beer concession, that it was done by Parks and Recreation when the director of Parks and Recreation was a director of the Sycamore Township Republican Club at the time,” Lazarus says.

Under Ohio ethics law, a public official “shall not profit from a public contract he approved or that was authorized by a body of which he was a member unless the contract was competitively bid and awarded to the lowest and best bidder.” It says an official occupies a position of profit “when he or she receives some financial gain or benefit that is definitely and directly related to the carrying out and completion of the contract.”

Burke, the Democratic Party chairman, laments the passage of more than two years since he filed his ethics complaint with the state. He says the Sycamore trustees owe the public some answers.

"They manipulated the trust given to them by the taxpayers for their own political gain," Burke says. "All the while, the township's festival was running tens of thousands of dollars in the red.

"Trustees desiring to put the good of the township first would have had the township itself operate the beer booths, thereby recouping some of the loss," he says. "Or they could have given the right to a true non-profit that benefits the township, like a group that supports local youth sports leagues or the local garden club. Instead they selfishly filled their campaign coffers."

CONTACT JAMES McNAIR: [email protected]@JMacNews on Twitter / 513-665-4700, x. 142.