The following article appeared in the Chagrin Valley Times on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Our thanks to the Chagrin Valley Times for permission to republish the article here.
Chagrin Valley Times
May 4, 2017
By JOSEPH KOZIOL JR.
Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but one county official may escape prosecution because of ignorance of another kind.
Last August, the Geauga Park District posted on their website and sent out through electronic messaging, a “Park Appreciation Day” notice that included then Geauga County Commissioner candidate Timothy Lennon would be among the speakers. A second notice from the park district identified Mr. Lennon as “future Geauga County Commissioner.”
The notice drew immediate attention from Geauga County Probate Judge Timothy Grendell, who chastised park officials for the release, calling it “improper.”
“As soon as I saw the flyer, I opined that the language was improper and should not be in there,” Judge Grendell wrote at the time. “I had contacted you to correct the flyer before release. I was informed that the correction would be made before the flyer was published. Most unfortunately, the flyer, in that incorrect form, was prematurely released. The matter must be corrected immediately and any reference to Mr. Lennon should be removed.”
Judge Grendell blamed park Director John Oros and the park’s communication specialist, Sandy Ward for the error.
But before any corrections were made an estimated 9,380 Geauga households received the notice via email.
While Mr. Lennon was elected county commissioner in the November race, he did have an opponent at the time, Democratic challenger Bonnie Cavanaugh.
Though the slip-up could be viewed as a simple mistake, it is against the law. Section 9.03 of the Ohio Revised Code states that “no person shall knowingly conduct a direct or indirect transaction of public funds to benefit: a campaign committee, political action committee, political party, legislative campaign fund, a political committee or a candidate.”
The code also noted that “whoever violates … this section shall be punished as provided in Section 3599.40 of the Revised Code.” The offense is a first-degree misdemeanor.
Because public dollars were used to fund the notices, one resident took the case to Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz for review.
But, eight months later, Mr. Flaiz said he is struggling to bring charges in the case.
He said the word “knowingly” means the person has to show intent to violate the statute.
Mr. Oros, who is a member of the Geauga County Republican Party’s Central Committee and has participated in Geauga County Tea Party functions, apparently was unaware that Mr. Lennon had a challenger in the race when the notice was issued, Mr. Flaiz said. He said it is difficult to show Mr. Oros knew what he was doing.
The park event never became political because Mr. Lennon did not appear at the event following the notice and corrections that followed.
Newbury resident Christopher Yaecker, at the time the notice was issued, offered simple advice for any future plans to give political candidates a boost in their campaigns using public dollars. “I would recommend that you reconsider this arrangement or invite all candidates for county offices to participate in park-sponsored events,” Mr. Yaecker wrote to park officials.
PGP Editor’s Note: On August 24, 2016, we published an independent article about this incident which includes images of the e-mail flyers which were sent county-wide by the park district. You can read that article at this link.
While the County Prosecutor may find this incident too cloudy to pursue a court battle, this is exactly the kind of timidity that allows public corruption to fester and grow. When does a violation of law become severe enough to warrant action against public officials? Would any ordinary citizen be allowed to walk away from a traffic ticket because they didn’t notice the speed limit sign and, therefore, didn’t actually “intend” to drive 50mph in a 25mph zone?
The judge’s attempts to deflect blame for this down the ladder to subordinate employees is simply disgusting.