Ohio ends 2-year session peppered with misbehavior

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Four-term Dayton Democrat Clayton Luckie's refusal to resign his seat in the Ohio House while awaiting trial on 49 counts of theft, corruption and money laundering stirred the ire of Republicans.

But Luckie wasn't the only state lawmaker who's had a run-in with authorities during this two-year General Assembly, one of the most misbehaving broods in recent years. Some resign, some don't.

Former Democratic Rep. W. Carlton Weddington resigned and surrendered to authorities in March after being indicted on charges of bribery, election falsification and filing a false financial disclosure statement. He's now serving three years in prison.

Authorities involved in the ongoing federal investigation said Weddington took trips and cash in exchange for taking steps to introduce legislation. He is believed to be the first state lawmaker in a century convicted of bribery.

Luckie's subsequent indictment made the session historic, said Ohio Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe. The Legislature's chief watchdog said it's rare to have one lawmaker indicted in a session, let alone two.

"You'd have to go back to 1998 to find the last legislator who was charged with a felony," Bledsoe said. That was the year state Sen. Jeff Johnson, a Cleveland Democrat, was convicted on federal corruption charges.

Johnson fought to keep his seat until the end of his term, aware that if he didn't resign, his legislative colleagues would have to impeach him to get him out.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said Friday that he's asked Bledsoe for additional information on Senate Finance Chairman Chris Widener's decision to champion a 2009 budget amendment that benefited a hometown agricultural nonprofit the senator co-founded and financially backed. He said no wrongdoing is implied by the inquiry.

Widener said in a statement he had "proactively contacted" Bledsoe and provided the facts surrounding his service on the board. "I plan to provide any additional information needed," Widener said.

Ohio Republican Party spokesman Matt Henderson said party leaders can, and should, play a role in forcing bad actors from office when the circumstances demand it.

"There are actions that the party leadership could take to remove someone: for example, Clayton Luckie," he said. "They could take away his furniture; they can force him to resign. They can do that."

After revelations that then-state Rep. Robert Mecklenborg, a Republican from Green Township, didn't tell House Speaker William Batchelder about an out-of-state drunken driving arrest -- and the odd circumstances that surrounded it -- his days at the Statehouse were numbered.

Records of the arrest showed Mecklenborg failed field sobriety tests and tested above the legal blood-alcohol limit. Married with three children, he was arrested in the wee hours of the night with a young woman in the car who was not his wife.

Mecklenborg resigned under pressure from the party in August 2011.

Two other Republican lawmakers who had brushes with law enforcement this session defended themselves against calls for resignation.

First-term state Sen. Kris Jordan weathered a shower of criticism after his wife called 911 in July 2011 amid a domestic dispute. She told a deputy in a taped interview that, drinking or not, her husband had a pattern of getting angry, throwing things and sometimes "pushing me around."

In a letter to the editor of the Mansfield News Journal last summer, resident Jennifer Armstrong of Columbus urged Jordan's constituents to demand his resignation.

"His behavior is an embarrassment to our great state, as well as to all men who behave in a manner befitting the title 'husband,'" she wrote. "We do not need bullies as public officials."

Melissa Jordan ultimately declined to pursue criminal charges and the senator pursued a complaint against the sheriff's office alleging they mishandled her call. The sheriff was cleared.

State Rep. Jerrod Martin, a Beavercreek Republican, ignored calls from then-GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine to step down after he was charged with drunken driving and child endangerment in a July 2011 traffic stop with three nephews in his pickup.

His attorney, Charles Rowland, said they argued successfully for the state's evidence to be suppressed and the case was dismissed. Martin paid a fine of $253 for driving left of center.

He took the unusual tack of using the experience in a campaign mailer this spring, which featured a screenshot of video taken by the police cruiser and this message: "Driving home from a day at work on the family farm ... State Rep. Martin was falsely accused and he fought back ... Wouldn't you like to know your state rep has the courage to fight for you?"

He lost the election.

Luckie's current term ends Dec. 31. His lawyer has said that he didn't resign because he was fighting the charges and that his critics should presume him innocent until proved guilty. His trial is set for Jan. 22.