And Justice for Mo 

After four years of smiling pretty, a Summit County lightning rod hopes to tip the Ohio Supreme Court to the GOP.

Lieutenant governor may be the stupidest job in Ohio politics, but you can't beat the face time. Lieutenants make earnest public-service announcements. They hold press conferences for the evening news. Their mugs beam out from placards at highway rest stops.

It's enough to launch a career. Just ask Maureen O'Connor. Four years ago, she was a relatively inexperienced county prosecutor with spotty electoral success; today she's the favorite in a race for an Ohio Supreme Court seat, the Republicans' best hope to shift the sharply divided court to the right.

The stakes are high. Medical malpractice awards and school funding are sure to be on the next court's agenda. Trial lawyers, physicians, educators, and virtually every other powerhouse advocacy group in the state are laying out millions to ensure that their candidate is being fitted for robes come January.

Most voters, however, pay Supreme Court races little attention. Name recognition is everything.

Little on O'Connor's résumé indicates a brilliant judicial mind. She's served as a judge for less than two years. Most bar associations rank her behind her more experienced opponent, Hamilton County Municipal Judge Tim Black. But thanks to a formidable Q rating, polls show her leading anyway.

The irony is that O'Connor is no lightweight pushover. She is direct to the point of brusqueness. "One article said I don't put up with fools," she says. "Well, who would?" Often frank, sometimes terse, she gives the impression of someone who would rather prosecute babies than kiss them. Even as lieutenant governor, she's skipped some of the more frou-frou parts of the job and focused on another, far more challenging role in these yellow-alert days: serving as the state's public-safety director and head of its anti-terrorism task force.

She prides herself most on competency. Again and again, "I knew I could do the job well" is her explanation for taking on something new. It's not all ego, either: Even critics acknowledge she's a workhorse. No one disputes she's held tough jobs and made tough calls.

That doesn't mean those calls were popular. In Akron, where O'Connor began her career, people love her or hate her even today.

After four years as lieutenant governor, tucked far away from real scrutiny, it's easy to forget what a polarizing figure she once was. It's easy to forget how controversial O'Connor has been, now when her perspective actually matters, now when she could shape Ohio's future.

In the beginning, O'Connor couldn't get elected to save her life. Even including her 1998 victory on Taft's gubernatorial ticket, she has lost more elections than she's won. It took a party appointment to get her only judgeship to date.

A Parma native and 1985 graduate of Cleveland Marshall College of Law, O'Connor began her career as a magistrate in Summit County Probate Court. Two years later, seeking greater things, she ran for judge. Over the next six years, she ran three more times.

She ran hard -- once blasting incumbent Municipal Judge Jane Bond as "Low-Bond Jane Bond" for setting an accused rapist's bond at $2,500. And she fell hard. As The Akron Beacon Journal quickly pointed out, a judge other than Bond had actually set the bail.

"This sort of trash politics should be rejected no matter which candidate or political party uses it," the newspaper opined. "The real message of Maureen O'Connor's campaign 'mailer' is that she is not fit for judicial office." Voters agreed; O'Connor lost all four races.

But Republican leaders appreciated her moxie. They handed her a common pleas seat in 1993. Critics derided her as a party hack. But once ensconced on the bench, she quickly gained a reputation for diligence and smarts.

William Zavarello, an Akron personal injury attorney, remembers O'Connor's deep interest in the cases before her. "She would listen and read the briefs, then go off and research the case herself," he says. "It was wonderful."

Brenda Burnham Unruh, then an assistant prosecutor, says O'Connor was patient and fair, willing to give drug addicts "multiple, multiple chances . . . too many chances sometimes."

Despite playing it safe on the bench, O'Connor couldn't quite avoid controversy. Unruh remembers O'Connor wearing a black leather skirt under her robes one day and pants the next. Both, she says, were fairly scandalous to Akron's button-down judiciary.

One year later, O'Connor won her first election, keeping her seat with 68 percent of the vote. But within months, rumors spread that O'Connor had a new role in mind: county prosecutor.

At first it seemed unlikely. Prosecutors often became judges. No one could remember the process going in reverse, says Alison McCarty, then an assistant prosecutor.

O'Connor, true to form, wasn't going to let convention stop her. Three months after finally being elected judge, she moved into the prosecutor's office.

County prosecutors are usually too busy running the office to make their way to a courtroom. When they try a case, it's usually a big one they can win in a tide of great publicity.

For better or worse, that wasn't O'Connor. She had barely settled into her office when she decided to take on a tough case she was almost guaranteed to lose.

In October 1994, 16-month-old Chad Davis died from a ruptured intestine caused, according to the deputy coroner, by a punch to the gut. Davis's mother's boyfriend, 28-year-old Adam Parma, had been arrested and charged with murder.

McCarty, who relayed the story to her new boss, knew the case was riddled with holes. The deputy coroner killed himself just one day after performing the autopsy, so he wouldn't be able to testify as to when Davis was struck -- a key fact, since Parma arrived in town just 17 hours before the boy died. The head coroner, himself under fire for absences from his office, wouldn't even return McCarty's calls.

"None of the other assistant prosecutors wanted to touch it, because they knew I was probably going to lose," McCarty says. "[But] Maureen told me, 'I'll get the coroner on board, and then I'll try the case with you.'"

It was risky. "People told her not to do it," McCarty says. "It was definitely not an easy case. But she's fearless."

Unsurprisingly, Parma's defense attorney, Jay Milano, was unimpressed by O'Connor's chutzpah. "She had the skills of a novice lawyer and the confidence of one who's been doing it a long time," he says.

As McCarty had feared, the case fell apart on cross-examination. Under Milano's skillful questioning, the coroner admitted first estimating the fatal blow at two to three days before Davis's death and only later shortening the time to 12 to 20 hours. Other experts testified that the boy's immune system was trying to heal the intestinal rupture -- a reaction that would require several days.

The jury deliberated just four hours before rejecting all charges. The defeat was crushing for O'Connor and her team. "When you lose a baby homicide, it's very hard to take," McCarty says.

O'Connor never tried another case.

Once considered a fair, even lenient judge, O'Connor did an about-face as a prosecutor, quickly earning a rep as a bullish hard-liner. Not one for introspection, she is typically matter-of-fact when discussing her change of direction. "Your reaction is always based on your life's experiences, and [mine] is that I've seen the lowest form of humanity at work," she says.

O'Connor's famous diligence didn't hurt, either. As judge, she saw her job as listening and deciding. As prosecutor, she was there to bust criminals.

And bust them she did. Even today, her official biography brags of her policy of prosecuting violent juveniles as adults. When 14-year-old Donzell Lewis was involved in a botched drug deal that left a woman dead, O'Connor put him on trial as an adult for involuntary manslaughter.

It was an adult accomplice who pulled the trigger. But Lewis, whom O'Connor famously labeled a "little sociopath," was sentenced to 14 years in the state pen. At the time, he was the youngest person ever sent to an Ohio prison.

The Lewis case still raises O'Connor's ire. She recalls watching the videotape from a previous Dairy Mart break-in: "I watched him pistol-whip an employee for no reason whatsoever," she says. "The cash drawer was open, the kid had access to it, all he had to do was grab the money and run, and he just took it out on this poor individual cowering in the corner."

Cops loved her. Ed Duvall Jr., a commander with the Akron Police, recalls O'Connor's willingness to go after anyone: "She didn't care who it was. She didn't care what the mayor would think. Political considerations aside, she wanted to do the right thing."

She didn't even flinch from prosecuting police officers. In 1997, Akron Police Captain Douglas Prade, a respected black officer, became a suspect when his ex-wife, Margo, was found dead in a parking lot.

When the investigation stagnated, O'Connor took over, personally supervising it for eight months. She authorized a wiretap on Prade and later flew to New York to meet the expert who examined a bite mark on Margo Prade.

"She made the decision to charge him, and nobody else wanted to make that call," McCarty says. "At that point, it wasn't the strongest case in the world, and it could have been very politically divisive with the police department and the African American community."

In the end, Prade was found guilty on all charges.

Defense attorneys, however, failed to appreciate her zeal. "Prosecutors, unfortunately, sort of forget what [their role is]," Zavarello says. "They're an officer of the court, not an arm of the police department or whoever wants to come up with a way to hang criminals more quickly."

If such complaints are typical, O'Connor's blood lust was not. A year-long escort service sting near the end of O'Connor's tenure ended with 67 women -- two owners and 65 sex workers -- charged in a whopping 1,088-count indictment. Many were charged with money laundering and racketeering, though their lawyers insisted that they were, at most, low-level call girls.

Defense attorneys saw the indictments as overkill. "The prosecutors were in on the investigative stages of that case, and so they had a personal interest in its outcome," says one, who requested anonymity because he believes O'Connor will be elected to the Supreme Court. "They overindicted it and didn't want to let anyone go."

His client was charged with conspiracy and prostitution. He kept insisting the case was weak, but the prosecutors wouldn't back down, even as it lingered for months, running up legal bills. Then all charges were suddenly dropped. "They didn't have anything," the lawyer says. "So we want a prosecutor to arraign and charge a defendant on everything they can possibly find? It was horrible for my client. Horrible."

After O'Connor's successor dismissed many of the charges in the escort service case, The Beacon Journal took a hard look at O'Connor's tenure. The newspaper announced that indictments had increased despite a drop in crime.

Although the analysis filled the front pages of the newspaper for two days, O'Connor was nonplussed. "If The Beacon or any other newspaper is criticizing me by saying I was too tough on crime," she says, "I wish they would put that in the headline and run it every day."

Indeed, her stance won her admirers. One was Secretary of State and gubernatorial hopeful Bob Taft.

As prosecutor, O'Connor was praised and reviled for her hard-line prosecutorial tactics. But Democrats claim she was also a party animal who could be counted on to go soft on fellow Republicans.

Indeed, O'Connor's pro-GOP stance once ran her afoul of the law herself. In 1996, Ohio's Election Commission cited her for illegally soliciting employees for a Republican Christmas party/fund-raiser. "It is my understanding that almost everyone from our office purchased a ticket for last year's party," she had written. "I am hoping to have the same result this year." She later called the $50 fine "a slap on the wrist."

Cuyahoga Falls Council President Kathy Hummel, a Democrat, thinks politics also caused O'Connor to pass on a case in her city.

Cuyahoga Falls had purchased insurance through Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Ohio. A lawsuit filed by a former Blue Cross employee, James Collver, alleged that Blue Cross salesman James "Ed" James and the city's broker, Bob Myers, were in bed together. The lawsuit seemed to indicate that Cuyahoga Falls was saddled with an overpriced contract as a result -- one Democrats thought demanded a criminal investigation.

Over four years, James had received nearly $150,000 from Myers's company, even though Myers's partner never saw him do any work. Myers also leased a Corvette for James and put him up in a spacious house he owned.

What did Myers get for his generosity? Former Blue Cross employees say James would offer a higher-than-necessary rate to his clients, then suggest Myers as a broker to negotiate a lower rate. With Myers on board, James then dropped the price, adding a commission for Myers on top. "Myers got his 2 percent, and James got the kickback," one former employee says. The customer, in this case Cuyahoga Falls, paid Myers the commission.

One former Blue Cross employee testified to seeing James and Myers examining other competitors' bids for the Cuyahoga Falls contract. Myers, of course, was supposed to be safeguarding the city's interests, not helping one competitor over another.

A Cuyahoga Falls councilman asked County Prosecutor Lynn Slaby to investigate. But Slaby handed off the case to the city police, who report to the mayor -- a Republican who had taken contributions from both Myers and James.

Not surprisingly, when police issued their report one year later, it didn't mention an affidavit James had signed, promising he hadn't collaborated with undisclosed parties. (Blue Cross workers thought the affidavit was key to a perjury or fraud charge.) Neither had police interviewed Collver, who says he would have gladly talked with a subpoena. The police and the prosecutor's office -- then with O'Connor at the helm -- decided not to issue one. James and Myers both declined interviews, and their cooperation was apparently never pursued further.

The report raises more questions than it answers. It notes "strong support to the possibility of a kickback relationship" between Myers and James, yet that the evidence was circumstantial. It recommended no prosecution.

O'Connor responded with a letter praising the investigation. She agreed that no prosecution was justified.

Hummel was livid. "I guess what upsets me the most is that it was covered up by O'Connor," she alleges. Myers and James did not return calls for comment.

O'Connor says she doesn't remember the case. When Scene offered to provide documentation, she declined to review it. "It was obviously a decision we made at that point, and I'll stand by the choice," she says. Speculation that she killed the probe for political reasons, she says, "would definitely have been spoken by people who truly don't know what they're talking about."

Fred Zuch, her top assistant at the time, agrees. Well known for taking on prominent Republicans, Zuch says he represented the office in meetings with Cuyahoga Falls Police, and he decided there was no case.

Despite the free advertising that comes with the lieutenant governor's job, it can nonetheless be a political graveyard. Summit County Democratic Chairman Russell Pry notes that no recent Ohio lieutenant other than Senator Mike DeWine has been able to parlay the job into much of anything. Who today, for example, remembers Nancy Hollister?

If O'Connor loses her Supreme Court bid, she, too, could easily fade into obscurity. The state is full of Republicans with résumés, and O'Connor has no desire to return to Summit County. "I have all these administrative responsibilities and then some, compared to what the county has," she sniffs.

Fortunately for her, polls show O'Connor with a strong lead. Her accomplishments in Columbus have generated far less media attention than a series of snicker-inducing snafus -- her son's arrest on a drug charge, her alleged battle with First Lady Hope Taft over misdelivered furniture, a series of speeding tickets (especially embarrassing for the figurehead behind Ohio's safe-driving campaigns). But she does have that name.

Her conservative views don't hurt, either. Limiting medical malpractice awards is arguably the issue of the election, and physicians, who appear to be beating trial lawyers in the public relations war, are strongly behind O'Connor. Her opponent, Black, has labor in his camp, but O'Connor definitely has the fund-raising advantage.

Everyone knows the difference one justice can make: The GOP now has five of seven court seats, but the court will be ideologically divided with the retirement of Republican Andrew Douglas, a swing vote who often split with his party.

Democrats say O'Connor got the party's nod precisely because she is no Douglas. "I believe she'll do what they ask," Pry says. "She will follow the party line."

Supporters, of course, disagree. "She is nobody's puppet; she is nobody's lackey," says Roe Fox, who worked under O'Connor as an assistant prosecutor. "She is truly a hardworking public servant -- there's no more and no less to her than that."

Even after four years in a mostly ceremonial job, O'Connor remains a paradox: a fearless woman of principles to admirers, a politicized bully to detractors.

Republicans may have been wise to choose her nevertheless. "You're not going to have a warm and cozy relationship with Maureen O'Connor," Fox says. "But if you want to win, she's your person."

It's also pretty tough fighting the power of highway rest-stop signs. Just ask Judge Black.


More by Sarah Fenske


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