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August 10, 2007

Why wasn't Brinkman indicted?

Judge called him ‘real culprit’ in anti-gay election fraud, but he has ties to prosecutor

Cincinnati--The state lawmaker labeled the “real culprit” in election fraud related to an anti-gay campaign may have escaped indictment through his ties to the county prosecutor.

State Rep. Thomas A. Brinkman, Jr. of Cincinnati ran last year’s petition drive by Equal Rights Not Special Rights to force a vote on Cincinnati’s new LGBT human rights ordinance. The campaign was halted after fake signatures and altered addresses were found on the petitions.

At the time, ERNSR head Phil Burress blamed the problem on day laborers hired to collect signatures. Two of those workers, Precilla Ward and Lois Mingo, pleaded guilty to election falsification on July 11.

But Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert P. Ruehlman bluntly blamed Brinkman in an extraordinary statement from the bench during the women’s hearing.

“[T]he real culprit is Mr. Brinkman and his boss,” said Ruehlman from the bench. “They [Ward and Mingo] are kind of pawns compared to him.”

Ruehlman, a Republican like Brinkman, repeated this thought during the brief hearing.

“They shouldn’t have done it,” Ruehlman said of the two women. “But, again, looking at the big picture, the real culprit was Brinkman.”

Brinkman was never indicted, although the judge was told he admitted altering the petitions.

From the bench, Ruehlman noted his issues with the way the case was handled.

“I got concerns on this case,” Ruehlman said during an exchange with assistant prosecutor David Stevenson and Hamilton County Board of Elections director John Williams in the hearing transcript.

“Along with Ms. Branch and others,” Williams replied.

Jennifer Branch is the Cincinnati attorney for Citizens to Restore Fairness, now called Equality Cincinnati. The group led city council to pass the ordinance after successfully campaigning to repeal a charter amendment blocking it.

Branch conducted the initial investigation of the petitions that led to the criminal probe. Her protest of more than 1,300 signatures led to the withdrawal of the petitions by their circulator, Equal Rights Not Special Rights.

ERNSR is connected to Citizens for Community Values of suburban Sharonville, both headed by Burress.

“Now, what about Brinkman?” Ruehlman asked Stevenson. “What did you find out about Brinkman? This is what’s most intriguing.”

Stevenson described to the judge what Branch had discovered and the prosecutor also found: Addresses of signers that lived outside the city were changed to addresses of Cincinnati voters with similar names. Someone, not the signers or voters, crossed out the old addresses and wrote in the new ones.

This is election fraud, by all accounts.

“It turned out Brinkman actually admitted to that?” Ruehlman asked. “How many others did he do like that, that he admitted to?”

“I don’t know the exact number,” Stevenson replied. “Around eleven hundred, a thousand addresses changed.”

“He admitted changing addresses?” Ruehlman asked.

“Yes, sir,” Stevenson answered.

“Because this is substantial. He’s the real criminal,” Ruehlman said of Brinkman.

“What he did is terrible, almost defrauding,” Ruehlman continued. “A layer of foundation of our democracy is voting and free elections. To cheat the voting system. He’s a state rep, on top of that.”

“As a result of what we found with respect to this investigation, one of the things that we ascertained is that a lawyer had advised the Brinkmans [Tom and his wife Cathe] that addresses could be altered,” said Stevenson.

That lawyer was David Langdon, who represents CCV in nearly every anti-LGBT action in the state. He represents Brinkman in his suit against Miami University’s domestic partner benefits, and used to counsel the Ohio secretary of state’s office when it was controlled by Ken Blackwell, also a Republican.

Langdon is also quoted in newspapers referring to Republican Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters as his “client.”

Deters’ office supervised the investigation and grand jury process that indicted Ward and Mingo--but not the Brinkmans.

Brinkman and Deters are political allies, involved in an anti-tax group Brinkman founded called the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, which Langdon also represents.

Currently, COAST is supporting a campaign to raise sales taxes for a new jail, and enlisted Deters to be its campaign spokesperson.

While they were targets of this investigation, however, Tom and Cathe Brinkman were represented by Cincinnati criminal attorney James Perry.

In an October 17, 2006, letter to Deters’ investigator in the case, Perry admitted that he has “not previously been exposed to election law issues.” He wrote that Langdon called his attention to a 1969 Franklin County case that, presumably, would be helpful to the investigator.

Perry would not comment further than to say he represented the Brinkmans.

Deters’ interpretation of the 1969 ruling is at the heart of the question of whether or not he showed favor to the Brinkmans.

The Franklin County case involved petitions where voters had used ditto marks in the date column, and the dates were inserted later by someone else.

Branch explained the difference to the Gay People’s Chronicle last March.

“[ERNSR] did not just fill in correct addresses,” said Branch. “They changed the identities of voters. That’s fraudulent.”

“We found that someone crossed out the address for a man who lived in Mariemont and wrote in the Hyde Park address of someone with a similar name,” Branch said. “We also found that someone crossed off the address of a woman in Cleves and wrote in the Cincinnati address of a woman with the same name.”

“By not prosecuting these illegal actions, Deters is giving someone a free pass,” Branch said.

Stevenson interpreted the case differently to Ruehlman.

“Nothing specifically relates to addresses in the election code,” said Stevenson. “That’s what we looked at.”

“If you have signed your name, you were authorizing whoever is holding the petition to fill out the rest of the petition,” Stevenson said.

He avoided saying that this would only be true if a space were left blank, like the Franklin County dates. Signers of ERNSR’s petitions wrote in addresses that were later crossed out.

The judge and Stevenson discussed the ironies of Ohio election law further, prompting Ruehlman to opine, “When a lawyer tells you to do something obviously wrong, you know--two of my granddaughters are in grade school, they know that’s wrong to sign a name for somebody--to take [Cincinnati Reds owner] Bob Castellini’s name and put his address, they would know that’s wrong.”

“I can’t argue,” replied Stevenson.

Ruehlman declined to criticize the prosecutor for this, but suggested that the Ohio House of Representatives should censure Brinkman.

“The law should be changed. I can’t believe the state representatives haven’t done anything about this,” Ruehlman continued.

After more discussion with the attorneys, Ruehlman said, “This is all Citizen for Community Values. They’re kind of high and mighty, always talking about pornography and things like that. I think free election and voting is most important community value, don’t you?”

“I think that’s one of the values maybe they’re missing here,” Ruehlman concluded.

Only grand juries can indict, and only prosecutors can convene a grand jury. The prosecutor then manages the evidence presented to the grand jurors.

Once a grand jury returns a “no bill” or clears an investigation target, as was the case with the Brinkmans, the matter cannot be reopened.

Grand juries are secret proceedings. Discussing what goes on inside a grand jury is a criminal offense.

A former federal attorney who has experience convening Ohio grand juries spoke to the Chronicle about the process and what may have let the Brinkmans avoid prosecution. He requested his name not be used.

On whether Deters’ ties to Brinkman and Langdon should have led Deters to call in outside independent counsel, the attorney said that political connections alone are not enough, but “the fact that not doing it is causing question means there is an appearance of impropriety and he should have done it to avoid that.”

“Grand juries are a one-sided presentation,” he continued. “And they are there just to find probable cause to go forward, not to convict, so the standard for getting an indictment is fairly low. Grand juries take their cues from the prosecutor.”

“What most likely happened here,” he said, “is that the prosecutor either recommended that the grand jury not return a charge, or let them know he was neutral about getting a charge” on the Brinkmans.

Ward and Mingo will be sentenced August 20. They could receive more than a year in prison, or probation.




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