► Canton Repository - 06/28/02 - Justices cruise, citizens pay Print E-mail

Canton Repository

 

Justices cruise, citizens pay
Friday, June 28, 2002
By PAUL E. KOSTYU
Copley Columbus Bureau chief
 
COLUMBUS -- Judicial watchdog David Palmer, a Columbus attorney who
regularly files complaints against judges he thinks have abused their position, is now taking on justices of the Ohio Supreme Court.
 
Last year, Palmer filed felony theft complaints against nine retired visiting judges, saying they had overbilled for their services, meals and lodging. They returned $8,700 to state coffers as a result.
 
Last week, he filed 28 felony theft-in-office charges against four justices, saying they pumped more gas into state vehicles than the tanks are designed to hold.
 
How did he figure this out? He did something that a journalist should have done. He obtained public records of the justices’ purchases of fuel using state-issued gas cards.
 
If nothing else, Palmer’s actions illustrate why Ohio needs a strong public records law. Public officials need to be held accountable. Every time the Legislature chips away at the law by restricting access — and lawmakers seem to be doing so with more frequency — the more likely abuse will happen. In the end, Ohio taxpayers will be left to foot the bill.
 
Palmer claims Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and Justices Andrew Douglas, Paul E. Pfeifer and Francis E. Sweeney defrauded the state. His complaint says:
 
• Moyer filled his Buick Park Avenue with 25.5 gallons of gas, even
though the tank is 18.5 gallons.
 
• Douglas, who also uses a Buick Park Avenue, squeezed in 29.3 gallons.
 
• Sweeney got 24.5 gallons into his Buick Park Avenue at least once and
overfilled at least 11 other times.
 
• Pfeifer was able to get a whopping 36.3 gallons into the 20.5-gallon
tank of his Jeep Grand Cherokee.
 
“It means you’re either pumping the gas into another vehicle, like an SUV or something, dumping it on the road or pumping excess into another vehicle,” Palmer is quoted as telling a Columbus Dispatch reporter.
 
A court spokesperson, of course, said Palmer’s data are all wrong and that there is a good explanation for all of this. He didn’t know what that explanation was, but they will get back to us on that.
 
The gas is one issue, but another issue is the vehicles themselves.
 
Six of the seven justices drive, or have drivers to drive, state-owned cars — three Park Avenues, two Cherokees and one Ford Taurus. Justice Deborah L. Cook drives her own car but bills the state for mileage.
 
Why do the justices get vehicles paid for by taxpayers? Why are they driving Park Avenues and Cherokees? Why not a Honda Civic made down the road in Marysville?
 
The state’s constitution says “judges shall receive no fees or perquisites.” But court spokesperson Jay Wuebbold told the Dispatch, “It seems to me a car is hardly a perk.”
 
Excuse me?
 
Wuebbold said that because several of the justices commute to and from
other cities, a car should come with the job.
 
I live 30 miles from Columbus and commute every day. I’ve never held a job where a car came with it. I know there are public- and private-sector jobs where executives get a car as part of their contract. It makes sense for the governor to have one, but Supreme Court justices?
 
I wrote a story early in my journalism career in Tiffin about how the Seneca County sheriff used his county-issued car to go Christmas shopping. Taxpayers weren’t too wild about that.
 
I have an expense account, but mileage to and from work isn’t part of it. I like where I live, so it was my choice not to move closer to the job to cut down on my commute.
 
Why should the state provide a car and mileage for the justices? Cook is from
Summit County, but her job is in Columbus. If she chooses to maintain her home in Northeast Ohio, then shouldn’t she have to pay for commuting? Same thing with Alice Robie Resnick, who lives in Toledo.
 
I can understand paying mileage if a justice drives to a speaking engagement
or a conference, or when the court holds a session outside of Columbus. Those
kind of expenses make sense. I don’t even mind that the state pays $100 per month
for each justice to park his or her state-owned vehicle in Columbus.
 
During the state’s current budget crisis, the court, like other agencies, trimmed its
Budget. Apparently, the line item for vehicles, gas and repairs was off-limits.
 
Fill ‘er up.
 

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