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TRUMBULL COUNTY Not revealing donors brings political woes



Published: Thu, November 1, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The elections board director said the lawsuit against the sheriff brought the issue to light.

By STEPHEN SIFF

and PEGGY SINKOVICH

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

WARREN -- Politicians get their free lunch.

Dinner, too.

Campaign contributors may realize they are paying their candidate's meal ticket at dozens of banquets, charity fund-raisers and golf outings, but that's not all.

A review of records at Trumbull County Board of Elections shows that campaign contributions also are paying for gifts to candidates' wives and secretaries, for cases of wine and restaurant bills.

It is not always clear who is paying for these perks.

What eventually got Sheriff Thomas Altiere in trouble -- delaying his election victory by seven months and prompting $5,000 in fines -- was not the campaign-sponsored gifts from Victoria's Secret, but his failure to be forthcoming about the source of the funds, said Philip Richter, executive director of the Ohio Elections Commission.

Where he erred: The sheriff's troubles were twofold: He misidentified the sources of large donations, sometimes giving names that did not match the signatures on checks. Even more disturbing to the Ohio Elections Commission was that Altiere was unable to document the surprising amount of small donations listed in his finance reports.

He is legally required to keep that list, but when it was asked for, he could not produce it, said Norma Williams, director of the Trumbull County Board of Elections.

"The amount of money the sheriff collected for his campaign committee from these types of small donations was incredible," Richter said. "This should have been recognized."

It was not recognized until a lawsuit by Bill Jobe, a member of a rival political campaign, spurred officials to ask for Altiere's bank records and a list of small donors.

Without the lawsuit, "I don't think any of it would have come to light," said Williams.

Altiere maintains he is being punished for something that every Trumbull County officeholder does.

Because bank records and small donor lists have not been scrutinized for any other candidates, Williams said she cannot contradict Altiere's claim.

"We take [campaign finance reports] on face value," Williams said. "You have to trust that they tell the truth about what they are doing."

There is no simple way to check if candidates are telling the truth when they say where they got large donations because bank records are not public information.

Altiere, however, is far from the only person to list high contribution totals coming from many small donors.

What law says: Many candidates contend that the vast majority of their campaign funds came from these small, individual contributors, who are allowed under the law to remain unidentified.

The candidates are legally responsible for keeping these lists for seven years and they are considered public information, to be shown to anyone who asks, Williams said.

For example, Warren Mayor Hank Angelo says he collected $7,460 -- just about all the money he raised for the 1999 primary election -- in under-$25 contributions from unidentified sources during a single banquet May 2, 1999.

Angelo said that the tickets were $10 a piece.

"I kept a detailed list because it seems I'm always a subject of someone's suspicions," Angelo said. "I have a good treasurer who makes sure everything is in order."

Although there is nothing wrong with accepting small donations, political insiders say that when fund-raisers cost $25 for one ticket, it is unusual to have several under-$25 donations, because it is unusual for a person to buy just one ticket.

Saying donations came in under $25 increments, when they really did not, is a way for candidates to hide the source of funding, some elected officials said.

Art Magee, a former county commissioner, noted that he always listed all his donations, even those of $25. He said he didn't have any donations of less than $25.

"It's hard to do anything for less than $25," Magee said. "It's very expensive nowadays to do any type of fund raising."

Sole source: County Auditor David Hines reported that his campaign's only source of income in 2000 was from these unidentified $25 donations.

He said his campaign raked in $4,100 at a single, $25-a-plate fund-raiser last November. He said he did not keep a list of who gave him the money but does have the ticket stubs. He said the ticket stubs show who bought tickets.

"I was not aware that I had to keep a list," Hines said. "It is tough to do. In fact, I was going to have a fund-raiser this year. I canceled it. It is not worth the aggravation."

Seventy percent of the money raised at Hines' November 2000 event was used to pay expenses, according to his campaign finance reports.

County Treasurer Christ Michelakis told the board of elections that at an August 2000 fund-raiser, only about 30 percent of the $5,239 his campaign collected came in donations of $25 or less.

The rest of the money came in donations from $50 to $500 and the sources were identified on his campaign finance report.

Commissioner Michael O'Brien listed no donations of $25 or less.

The board of elections has pledged to scrutinize small donations more closely after its scolding by the Ohio Elections Commission, but Williams said she is not exactly sure how.

She said the board has asked the secretary of state to tell it what percentage of small donations should raise red flags.

The controversy has changed the way at least two politicians intend to do business.

Both Hines and Altiere say they will no longer have fund-raisers for $25 or less. Instead, they will have $100-a-plate dinners.

"It's too difficult to keep track of the $25-or-under donations, so I won't accept them anymore," Altiere said.

siff@vindy.com

sinkovich@vindy.com




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