By David Skolnick
The attorney general has the support of the governor and his state political party.
YOUNGSTOWN — Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, whose office is facing a high-profile sexual harassment investigation involving two of his close friends and top administrators, must confide any involvement in the case to his hometown constituents — now.
That’s the advice Harry Meshel of Youngstown, the former Ohio Democratic Party chairman and ex-Senate president, is offering.
The Vindicator asked Meshel on Tuesday what he would tell Dann, a Liberty Democrat, if he were still the head of the state Democratic Party.
“The more you tell the truth to people, the better you are,” said Meshel, who served two years as party chairman and 12 years as the Democratic leader in the Ohio Senate.
Even if the truth puts you in a bad light, it’s better for politicians to disclose any questionable conduct immediately, Meshel said.
Dann essentially has avoided discussing the investigation and his involvement in the matter.
He’s made a few comments to reporters who confront him as he goes to and from public events regarding the sexual-harassment investigation.
The office’s policy is not to discuss ongoing internal investigations.
Even so, Meshel said, “You can’t let anyone else write the story of your history. ... You should preempt it with your own statements. Whether it’s good or bad, it will come out eventually.”
Meshel also urged Dann to talk to The Vindicator about the investigation because “the folks back home are more apt to be compassionate and friendly” than those from other parts of the state.
Two 26-year-old attorney general employees — Vanessa Stout of Dublin, formerly of Masury, and Cindy Stankoski of New Albany — filed sexual harassment complaints against their boss, Anthony S. Gutierrez of Liberty, who made $87,500 annually as Dann’s director of general services.
Dann placed Gutierrez, 50, on paid leave April 7, pending the outcome of the investigation.
On Monday, Leo Jennings of Poland, Dann’s communications director, also was placed on paid leave related to the investigation.
The attorney general’s office won’t say why Jennings, who makes about $102,000 annually, was suspended.
Dann lived with Jennings and Gutierrez, who are longtime friends, from February to December 2007 in a Dublin condominium. Dann moved out in December.
Gutierrez also is a neighbor of Dann’s in Liberty.
Stankoski contends she was sexually harassed at the condo while she was intoxicated and was there at Dann’s invitation.
The two women said they were repeatedly pressured by Gutierrez, who is married, to have sex with him.
Two top-level attorneys in Dann’s office, including Ben Espy, a former state senator who serves as the executive assistant attorney general, are investigating the sexual-harassment allegations.
The two women were questioned separately Monday for about two hours each by Espy and Julie Pfeiffer, assistant attorney general from the office’s Employment Law Section.
“They both gave detailed accounts of everything that occurred,” said John Camillus, co-counsel for both women.
“It would be virtually impossible for an objective person to hear both stories and not find them credible. They were both very consistent.”
There also is documentation — including e-mails and text messages — that support their allegations, said Camillus, who was present when both were questioned.
Personnel files show Gutierrez helped get a raise for Stout, who was hired by the state’s top law enforcement department even though she had a criminal record.
Records also show he pushed through the hiring of Stankoski before all her background checks were completed.
The two women said Gutierrez often said “you owe me” in reference to their employment.
Camillus said there is a definite appearance of a conflict of interest having Espy and Pfeiffer, who both work for Dann, handle the investigation. Dann will be called as a witness in the investigation.
“That’s not to say any bias will leak into the investigation,” Camillus said.
“If the attorney general’s office handles it appropriately, then I’d be satisfied it was legitimate. I’m not comfortable with the appearance of impropriety,” though.
Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat formerly of Lisbon, and the Ohio Democratic Party are comfortable having Espy handle the investigation.
“The investigation just started, and we have a great deal of respect for Ben Espy,” said Keith Dailey, Strickland’s spokesman.
Dailey said Strickland is supporting Dann through this process and is not calling for the attorney general to resign or to have the investigation handled by an outside agency.
Also, Dailey said, Strickland and Dann haven’t talked about the investigation.
Dann also received a vote of confidence from the Ohio Democratic Party.
A statement from the party Tuesday says it has “full confidence in the attorney general.
Ben Espy is a person of integrity, and we are confident that the investigation will be handled fairly and properly under his supervision.”
Like Strickland, Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern has no intention of asking Dann to resign, said Alex Goepfert, his spokesman.
Officials with the Ohio Republican Party, who have verbally sparred repeatedly with Dann, have declined to comment on the investigation.