In 1999, after he was indicted on federal racketeering charges, Phil Chance, then sheriff of Mahoning County, added insult to the injury visited upon the honest residents of the county by refusing to do the right thing and step aside while his case was pending. Chance was under house arrest awaiting trial and was prohibited from carrying a gun, being around anyone with a gun, and having guns in his home. Yet he clung to his job as the county's chief law enforcement officer.
Even after Mafia boss Lenine Strollo testified under oath in federal court that he personally gave $10,000 to Chance during his campaign for sheriff, this poor excuse for a public official refused to resign. He showed no remorse.
He was ultimately convicted by a jury and is serving a 71-month sentence in a federal penitentiary.
But it was his disregard for the well-being of the community that prompted us to ask Gov. Bob Taft to activate a rarely used state law to force Chance from office. Taft could have filed a complaint saying, in effect, that the sheriff was unfit to hold public office.
But the governor did not act. His contention that he did not want to undermine the federal government's case against Chance rang hollow.
We just weren't able to convince the governor that having Chance continue as sheriff sent a message that corruption of the top law enforcement officer in the county was no big deal.
However, there was one statewide officeholder who obviously saw the merits of our argument -- even though he didn't have the authority to act.
State Auditor Jim Petro opined that elected officials who are indicted for felony crimes related to their offices should be suspended "to protect the public interest." He decided research the issue.
Suspension with pay
Petro, who is running for state attorney general in November, announced Thursday at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber's Salute to Business Awards breakfast in Boardman that he has proposed legislation that if enacted into law would provide for the suspension with pay of elected officials indicted of crimes in office.
The auditor, whose pursuit of former Mahoning Valley Sanitary District directors Edward A. Flask and Frank DeJute has made him one of the more popular officeholders in the region, has studied the laws of several states and modeled his proposal after the one in Georgia.
State Rep. Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster, is sponsoring the legislation in the Ohio House and it should become law next year.
Petro admits that his interest was triggered by the Chance case and also by former Fairfield County Sheriff Gary DeMastry's refusal to resign. A special audit conducted by the state auditor's office led to a 323-count indictment in February 2000. However, DeMastry remained in office for nearly year, during which time, prosecutors charge, he continued falsifying records.
DeMastry was convicted on a first-degree felony charge, received a six-year sentence, and is awaiting trial on 290 other charges.
Petro's proposal reflects his commitment to honest government and it should get the serious attention of those members of the Ohio General Assembly who share such a commitment.