Voinovich given 9 days to respond to allegations

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 3

COLUMBUS — Governor Voinovich and others accused of scheming to launder campaign expenses will have nine more days to respond to the allegations.

Philip Richter, executive director of the Ohio Elections Commission, gave attorneys until Dec. 4 to file responses to the charges, which could carry penalties including a $10,000 fine and removal from office.

The responses were due yesterday.

Mr. Voinovich is accused of plotting with his brother, Paul, and other officials of his 1994 re-election campaign to camouflage a $60,000 campaign expenditure as “voter program development services.”

According to testimony gathered in a federal grand jury investigation, that money was funneled to companies controlled by Paul Voinovich and lobbyist Michael Anthony Fabiano, using consultant Nick Mamias as a middleman.

The allegations reached the Ohio Elections Commission in late October, when Secretary of State Bob Taft referred the federal testimony to the commission as credible evidence of a campaign law violation.

The referral was discovered by rival Democrats on Nov. 2, the day before Governor Voinovich’s election to the U.S. Senate. Mr. Taft is now the governor-elect.

Governor Voinovich has denied knowingly authorizing any misrepresentation, despite grand jury testimony of his campaign treasurer, Vincent Panichi. Mr. Panichi testified that the governor specifically approved the plan to use a middleman.

In a motion filed Tuesday, the governor’s attorneys requested a delay longer than the one Mr. Richter granted. They argued that the governor should not have to respond to the allegations until the commission decides what to do with a similar set of allegations filed on Nov. 19 by Warren, O., labor leader Harold Nichols.

On Dec. 10, the commission is expected either to dismiss Mr. Nichols’ complaint, which covers much of the same ground as Mr. Taft’s, or combine the two.

Mr. Voinovich’s attorneys asked that their response be pushed back to five days after that decision is made.

Mr. Richter rejected that argument, saying a quick response was “in the best interests of this commission.”

But because of the timing of that motion’s filing, he said, he granted the extension to Dec. 4.

“It’s a fair and reasonable decision,” said attorney David Young, who is representing the governor.

At the Dec. 10 hearing, the commission will make a preliminary review of the case, which could include hiring a private investigator to examine the charges.

Death of ex-Toledoan confirmed; Autopsy indicates remain are of woman missing since spring

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 17

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The skeletal remains that were found in a rural North Carolina county Wednesday are definitely those of Peggy Carr, the Toledo native who disappeared in April, the state medical examiner’s office here has determined.

An autopsy yesterday morning made the identification, Bladen County Sheriff Steve Bunn said.

The discovery will help give closure to many of the friends and family members who have been searching for Ms. Carr since her disappearance.

“It’s not the same as seeing her or holding her, but at least we know we found her,” said Penny Carr Britton, Ms. Carr’s mother.

The remains were discovered in a thick, brushy area near a dirt road in Bladen County, about 30 miles northwest of Wilmington, N.C., where Ms. Carr, 32, lived.

She had been last seen running errands on April 22, in preparation for her wedding, which would have been in September. She left a note for her fiance, Charlie Rivenbark, saying: “Be back soon.”

But police believe two men – Bem Kayin Holloway, 21, of Raleigh, N.C., and Curtis Antwan Cobbs, 19, of Whiteville, N.C. – killed her to use her Geo Tracker as a getaway vehicle in a gas station robbery. The two men have been charged with murdering Ms. Carr and a clerk at the gas station they allegedly robbed in Lumberton, N.C.

Mrs. Britton and three other family members went to North Carolina Wednesday night after authorities there said they might have found the body.

Ms. Carr was a Central Catholic graduate who lived in West Toledo, on Claredale Road and Beaufort Avenue, all her life until moving to Wilmington two years ago.

A memorial service will be held in a North Carolina Catholic church tomorrow, and the family likely will return Monday to Ohio.

But the remains won’t return with them. Because of the difficulty performing an autopsy on skeletal remains, Mr. Bunn said, medical examiners have not yet been able to determine a cause of death.

In addition, each bone must be cataloged and photographed individually as part of the murder investigation. Mrs. Britton said the remains, which will be cremated in North Carolina, likely will not be ready for return to Ohio for more than a week.

Mrs. Britton thanked all in the Toledo area who have helped her family in the months of searching. “That’s been our strength, knowing that everyone has adopted Peggy and made her their concern,” she said.

The family plans to mark the spot where Ms. Carr’s remains were found, first with flowers, then a stone.

Troopers run for border in annual pigskin pranks

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

They won’t be meeting on just the field tomorrow.

If tradition holds, Ohioans and Michiganders will be meeting under a flagpole on Airport Highway. Or in a parking lot in Monroe, armed with bumper stickers. Or maybe at the state line.

For state troopers in both states, the Ohio State-Michigan football clash has long provided an opportunity to let off a little steam, and to pull a few pranks on their colleagues across the border.

Like the time Michigan state troopers ran a U of M flag up the flagpole at the Toledo post of the Ohio Highway Patrol.

Or the year Ohio troopers crossed the border and slapped Ohio State bumper stick ers on Michigan State Police patrol cars.

Or the time Michigan troopers, in the dead of night, posted a “Go Michigan” sign on the Toledo post’s lawn, then snapped a few photos for evidence.

“People would go across the line and try to have a little fun,” said Trooper Greg Rayot, a Michigan fan who works for the Ohio Highway Patrol.

And you thought Ohio and Michigan hadn’t sent armed men on the hunt across the border since the Toledo War, which gave the Upper Peninsula to the Wolverine state and Toledo to Ohio.

Michigan Trooper Leon Baker played a part in the last major flourish of the border rivalry, in 1996. That year, Michigan shocked the undefeated Buckeyes, 13-9, dashing their national title hopes.

“We went down to the Toledo post with a poster we’d made up,” he remembers. “We ran across their front lawn right under the windows and put it up. Then we took flash pictures of it for evidence, but they saw us.”

Trooper Baker and his partner then went into the post for a few cups of coffee, prisoners of the border war.

“But sometimes you’d get away with it the whole night, and no one would notice until the morning shift came in,” he said.

Trooper Baker recalls the specter of enemy troopers crossing the border, prowling around opponent posts looking for an opening for the annual prank. “Your patrol units would watch out for their patrol units and follow them to see what they were up to,” he said.

Consensus with both sides now is that the tradition has died down after the sign-posting in Toledo.

Part of it was probably caused by the move of the Michigan State Police post from Erie to Monroe, a much longer drive from the Toledo post on Airport Highway. And, according to Trooper Baker, some of the key promoters of the rivalry retired or left their posts.

In any event, no real pranking occurred last year. Troopers on both sides deny plans for tonight, but then, that would be the point.

Troopers have long been half-accused of taking sides on game weekend in another way – pulling over fans of the visiting team heading to the game.

“It probably does happen,” said the Toledo post’s Sgt. Dan Arend, a diehard OSU fan. “Everybody jokes about it. Too bad for the Michigan people coming back from the game,” he said, without much sympathy.

“Oh, they try to get as many Michigan plates as they can,” joked Trooper Greg Rayot, a Michigan fan who works for the Ohio Highway Patrol.

“I try not to stop someone for those reasons,” Trooper Rayot said. “But if they’ve got Ohio State flags flying from their window, then I’ve got to get them.”

Presumably, he was joking.

Actually, those a little higher up the Ohio Highway Patrol chain of command were extremely quick to point out that troopers like Trooper Rayot were, um, joking.

“We treat any kind of special event like a holiday weekend,” said Timothy Hubbell, the staff lieutenant at district headquarters in Findlay. “Traffic will be pretty heavy, so we put extra people out on patrol. But in 17 years of service, I’ve never heard of someone stopping a Michigan car just because they’re from Michigan.”

Lieutenant Hubbell? He’s neutral. Actually, an Iowa Hawkeyes fan, but his preference in teams “is not an official thing.”

6 arrested in drug bust at GM Powertrain plant

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 18

A yearlong investigation into drug dealing at the GM Powertrain plant on Alexis Road culminated in an afternoon drug bust and six arrests yesterday.

Nearly two dozen Toledo police officers converged on the facility at 4 p.m., then went inside with half a dozen drug-sniffing dogs to arrest five workers. A sixth who was on sick leave was arrested at home.

“We have a lot of great people who work at this plant, and we have an obligation to maintain a safe workplace for them,” said Pete Felton, the plant’s personnel director.

Arrested on indictments were Henry Groves, 37, of 940 Buckingham St.; Winston Logan, 44, of 6624 Dorr St.; Matthew Langenderfer, 31, of 4127 Bowen Rd.; Durell Hall, 39, and Jerome Granderson, 39, both of Ypsilanti, Mich., and Rodney Johnson, 35, of Detroit.

The six were booked into the Lucas County jail on charges ranging from felony trafficking in cocaine and other drugs to misdemeanor drug abuse. Jail officials did not know when the men would appear in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

GM officials had begun an internal investigation into allegations of drug sales in October, 1997. The company hired a private security firm, North American Security Solutions, Inc., of Vandalia, O.

One of the security firm’s employees infiltrated the plant, working on an assembly line to learn about alleged trafficking in cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and prescription medications. Thirteen months later, it paid off with arrests.

Three of the men who were arrested had suspected drugs in their possession – one had $1,000 in heroin, and two had marijuana, said Michael P. Spencer, president of the security firm. The two with marijuana were standing at their work stations at the time, he said.

From the investigation’s start, the security firm and GM made sure they involved Toledo police, vice-narcotics Sgt. Bill Wauford said. Whenever drug buys were made, the evidence was turned over to police for analysis.

The plant employs 4,200 hourly workers and 320 salaried personnel in a 1.8-million square foot facility. It has been on Alexis Road since 1956.

Mr. Felton would not say if the investigation uncovered actual drug sales or drug use at the plant, or if the deals simply were struck there. “We’re simply a microcosm of the outside world,” he said. He said the company offers drug and alcohol treatment programs to its employees.

A man who answered the phone at the UAW Local 14 work center inside the plant last night said the union would have no comment on the bust. He refused to identify himself. Mr. Spencer said his company has 26 similar operations going on nationwide.

“Typically, we find a way to get an operative in the plant, so they actually work alongside these employees, and gain their trust and confidence,” he said.

Escapee admitted bank holdups

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 20

Scott Kelly Hansen, the bank robber who escaped from federal custody Friday, had pleaded guilty to a string of bank robberies earlier this year.

On Nov. 4, Hansen pleaded guilty to four heists, including three in northwest Ohio: one in Toledo, one in Findlay, and one in Fostoria.

On Sept. 22, he pleaded guilty to two bank robberies in Rhode Island.

In the six robberies, Hansen escaped with about $11,500, federal officials in Rhode Island said. Each was a “note job,” in which the robber passes a threatening note to a teller demanding money.

Hansen could face up to 20 years on each of those guilty pleas, which could be served concurrently or consecutively.

That decision was to be made Jan. 26 by Judge Ronald Lagueux in U.S. District Court.

The judge might not get the chance.

Hansen walked away from the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston, R.I., Friday, after he impersonated a U.S. marshal on the phone and presented prison staff with a phony federal court order releasing him.

Hansen, who is from Toledo, could be headed back to this area, where he has family and friends, officials said.

But local and federal authorities said yesterday that they have received no information to indicate he is in Ohio.

“We’re checking all the leads that come through,” said U.S. Marshal John Leyden, who is leading the search in Rhode Island.

Mr. Leyden is the marshal Hansen impersonated in his escape.

Mr. Leyden said more than a dozen people from the FBI, state police, and his office have formed a task force to track down Hansen.

“We’re treating it as if he’s still in Rhode Island until we learn otherwise,” he said. “But we’re working with other states, in case. I would like to think that he’s still in this area.”

Just five hours after his escape, Hansen allegedly robbed a bank in suburban Providence. He was not wearing a disguise and took $7,000, authorities said.

Hansen has been convicted of bank robbery twice, in 1985 and 1990.

He was released from prison early in 1997 for testifying against Toledo lawyer Richard Neller in a high-profile murder case in 1996. At that time, Hansen was entered into the federal witness-protection program.

The FBI released a list of other heists Hansen is suspected of committing, including the robbery of a KeyBank in Toledo on April 6, the holdup of a credit union in Dayton on April 10, and a robbery in Ann Arbor, Mich., on April 24.

Bank robber on the lam; Toledoan uses fake papers to flee prison

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

CRANSTON, R.I. — A convicted bank robber from Toledo fooled prison authorities here into letting him go by giving them fake release papers he had printed on a prison computer, federal authorities said.

Within five hours of walking out of prison, they said, Scott Kelly Hansen had returned to his life’s work: He robbed another bank.

Local officials believe Hansen, who disappeared Friday, is headed back to Toledo, where he has been convicted of robbing four banks and is charged in at least three other robberies.

“This is a phenomenal set of circumstances, especially knowing Scott,” said Dave Harlow, the supervisory deputy in the U.S. Marshal’s Toledo office. “To be honest, I didn’t give him credit for being this bright. Scott was just an average Joe.”

Hansen, 38, had been in federal custody in Rhode Island since being captured in a Warwick, R.I., hotel room on June 6. He had been the subject of a manhunt by federal, state, and local officials after a three-month spree in which he allegedly robbed at least four banks in northwest Ohio and three more in Rhode Island.

After his capture, Hansen had formal charges in six of those robberies and had the prospect of a possible prison sentence of 80 to 100 years.

But he saw a way to avoid doing time. According to federal authorities, this is how he walked out of Rhode Island’s Adult Corrections Institute, a maximum-security prison:

Hansen gained access to a prison computer, probably one in the medical unit in which he worked, Mr. Harlow said.

Having spent years in the federal court system, Hansen knew what a federal court order looked like. On the computer, he forged an order from U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres releasing him.

On Friday morning, Hansen was in a prison common area where inmates spend some of their day. Inmates are allowed to use a bank of telephones there, but they cannot call other phones in the prison.

One exception is allowed, though: inmates can call a special investigative unit housed inside the prison that checks allegations of criminal activity in the institution. Officers in the unit rely on prisoners’ tips to do their work, so prisoners are allowed to call them. Such calls are recorded.

Hansen called the investigative unit, pretended to be a federal marshal, and said he had “accidentally” called the unit. He asked the person who answered the phone if he could be transferred to the record division, which he said he had meant to call.

The call was patched through.

Once he was talking to a clerk in records, Hansen pretended that he was John Leyden, who is the U.S. marshal for Rhode Island.

He asked if one Scott Kelly Hansen had been released yet. When the clerk said no, “Mr. Leyden” said one of his deputies had left the release papers in a nurse’s station at the prison, according to Mr. Harlow. Hansen apparently had access to the nurse’s station and had left the fake court order there.

Hansen included a forged memo from a court officer dictating the terms of Hansen’s bail.

The clerk, whose name has not been released, found the papers, which featured a court seal and Judge Torres’s forged signature. The clerk then signed the release paper.

At 2:30 p.m., Hansen walked out of prison.

“It was very well thought out,” Mr. Harlow said.

Prison officials did not notice the ruse until local police received evidence that Hansen had returned to his life of crime. Undisguised, Hansen robbed a Rhode Island bank of about $7,000 just five hours after walking out of prison, authorities said.

Only after an officer viewing a surveillance tape of that robbery recognized Hansen did anyone check to see if he was still in custody.

Now, Hansen may be headed back to his hometown, Toledo.

“My experience with Scott Hansen is that this is where he comes,” Mr. Harlow said. “He has family, friends, a support system. There’s a good chance he’s coming back.”

He said that the U.S. Marshal’s office has contacted dozens of people who have had contact with Hansen in the past, in the hopes that one of them might call authorities if they see him.

Toledo police and the FBI are on the lookout.

Hansen has been a familiar face to Toledo law enforcement agencies for almost three decades. His rap sheet traces his criminal activity to age 11. He admitted robbing a Huntington National Bank in 1984, a holdup for which he was sent to prison.

Two months after being released in 1991, he admitted to robbing three more banks.

During the prison term that resulted, Hansen twice helped prosecutors in high-profile murder cases.

In 1993, he testified that Jeffrey McDermott had confessed to him that he had killed Elwood “Poe” McKown, a local fence company owner. McDermott eventually confessed to the murder, but denied telling Hansen about it.

In 1996, Hansen testified against local attorney Richard Neller, then accused of the 1981 disappearance of his secretary, Cynthia Anderson. Hansen said Neller, who had been Hansen’s defense attorney in a previous case, had confessed to having Miss Anderson killed.

But U.S. District Judge John Potter ruled that Hansen’s testimony was not enough to prove any link to the disappearance.

The testimony got Hansen an early release from prison, though. Judge Potter released him in October, 1997, in exchange for his Neller testimony.

Hansen entered the federal witness protection program. But within months he was robbing banks again, authorities said.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, the maximum-security prison is conducting an internal-affairs investigation into the escape. An outside consultant has been asked to assemble a report on operations in the record bureau.

Rhode Island’s state police and the FBI are investigating.

Prison spokesman Al Bucci said the prison rarely has federal inmates – usually no more than a dozen at a time, most of them female – and that staff members were apparently just fooled by Hansen’s documents.

“Fifty thousand documents go through that office every year, including 16,000 commitments and discharges,” he said. “The paperwork corroborated his story.”

Mr. Bucci said this wasn’t the first time that the prison has released someone it shouldn’t have. He estimated that there have been three or four other cases in the last four years, but those were because of mistakes by administrators, not an inmate’s attempts at fraud, he said.

Hansen is the first “erroneous release” to have been jailed on serious charges, he said.

Mr. Bucci said he was “absolutely shocked” to hear of Hansen’s escapade.

“He masterminded this whole thing by himself,” he said. “It’s amazing that someone had this foresight. I wish he had put his energies into something good instead of something bad.”

In Ohio, Hansen is charged with three robberies: the March 24 robbery of the Charter One Bank branch at 4260 Monroe St.; the March 28 robbery of a Fifth Third Bank in Findlay; and the April 10 robbery of a KeyBank branch in Fostoria.

He is a suspect in the April 6 robbery of the KeyBank at 1950 South Reynolds Rd.

All four Toledo-area robberies matched what authorities said is the standard Scott Kelly Hansen bank robbery: a slender man with a baseball cap approaches the counter with a note stating he has a gun and demanding money.

Hansen is a white male, about 5 feet 11 inches tall and 140 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes.

He sometimes wears glasses. He has gone by the names Scott Edwards and Jonathan Murphy.

Liquor agents clip wings at ‘feather party'; Yacht club might lose its license for alcohol

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 13

A raffle of Thanksgiving turkeys could pluck away a Toledo yacht club’s liquor license.

State liquor-control agents raided the Riverview Yacht Club, 5981 Edgewater Dr., Saturday to shut down what they considered an illegal “feather party.”

More than 200 club members attended the party, which featured raffles and unlicensed bingo games.

“It’s no more than gambling,” said Earl Mack, assistant in charge of enforcement for the Division of Liquor Control. Club officials call it a misunderstanding. “I feel we did something we didn’t understand, and we’re in violation, and we’re sorry it happened,” said Alan Antoine, the club’s commodore.

Feather parties are not inherently illegal. But mixing gambling with the sale of liquor can be, which is why the club is facing three liquor control violations.

The club holds a feather party once a year, Mr. Antoine said.

The state liquor control board will rule within 90 days whether the club should be fined or have its license suspended or revoked.

In addition, holding a bingo game without a license is a felony in Ohio, Mr. Mack said.

His office will assemble information on a possible bingo charge against the club and present it to Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates later this week, he said.

Among the items seized in the raid was a roulette wheel. But Mr. Antoine said it was only going to be used to decide who won the night’s big turkey. “It’s just an entertaining party where you raffle off turkeys and hams and things just in time for Thanksgiving,” he said.

Bill to post warnings at beaches advances

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 1

COLUMBUS — The Ohio House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill aimed at telling swimmers when it’s not safe to go into the water at public beaches.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Furney (D., Toledo), requires the state to post signs at all public beaches where bacterial levels exceed safe levels. Currently, testing for bacteria is required, but the sign posting is not.

“This bill brings a renewed sense of confidence for swimming in our lakes,” Ms. Furney said.

It was passed 93-0 yesterday during the General Assembly’s first full session after Tuesday’s elections. It will be returned to the Senate in two weeks for expected approval of changes made by the House. It then will go to the governor for his signature.

Ms. Furney introduced the bill a year ago after discovering that Lake Erie beaches, such as the one at Maumee Bay State Park, had very high bacterial levels on some days, but no signs being posted.

Bacterial counts were found to be at what the state considers unsafe levels on 12 occasions during a 40-day period in the summer at four beaches in Lucas and Ottawa counties. The tests were by a private firm hired by The Blade. But signs alerting swimmers of the danger were only posted for three of those days.

E. coli bacteria can cause nausea, dysentery, hepatitis, and a variety of ear, nose, and throat ailments. Particularly at risk are the young, the old, and those with weakened immune systems.

“The most vulnerable of our population need to be protected from bacterial contamination at Lake Erie beaches, and this will help do just that,” said Amy Simpson, director of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, which has been pushing Ms. Furney’s bill for more than a year.

High bacterial levels are primarily caused by bird droppings and by heavy rains and winds, which can sweep human and animal feces into the water.

In other action, the House approved a bill aimed at preserving farmland threatened by suburban sprawl. It allows farmers to sell or donate easements on their farm land to local governments to guarantee it will continue to be used for agriculture.

“This is about protecting one of our most important nonrenewable resources,” said State Rep. Gene Krebs (R., Camden).

Mr. Krebs said passing the bill would help balance a bias in state law that encourages sprawl by subsidizing expenses like sewer line extensions.

He stressed that, under the bill, decisions remain with local governments, who could choose not to use their new power. But some localities would likely feel so strongly about stopping or slowing development that they would be willing to purchase an easement.

“This is only for willing buyers and willing sellers,” he said.

But Rep. Richard Hodges (R., Swanton) said that putting easements in the hands of politicians means that development interests would simply have to apply political pressure of local leaders to be able to extend development. He pointed to a clause in the bill which allows for the easement to be “extinguished” if land becomes un farmable.

“It’ll just be, `Oh, gosh, it’s impractical to use that land for agriculture,’ and one way or another, it’ll be developed,” he said.

Still, the bill passed 87-5.

The measure will go back to the Senate for approval of changes, then to the governor.

Furney to compete for minority leader

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 4

COLUMBUS — State Sen. Linda Furney (D., Toledo) will be running for the highest nonjudicial post a Democrat will hold in Ohio next year.

Ms. Furney yesterday announced her intentions of running for Senate minority leader against the current leader, Sen. Ben Espy (D., Columbus).

“I think that I can bring the kind of team-building we need as a caucus,” Ms. Furney said.

She easily won re-election Tuesday in Toledo’s 11th Senate District with more than 70 per cent of the vote. She became assistant minority leader in 1996. Before that, she was minority whip.

Mr. Espy – who also won re-election with more than 70 per cent of the vote – said he fully intends to run again, and that Ms. Furney told him of her intentions yesterday morning. “We have the kind of relationship where we can talk about that,” he said.

Whoever wins the post will lead the Senate’s 12 Democrats. There are 21 Republicans.

The two other Democratic leaders in the Senate are Minority Whip Jeffrey Johnson (D., Cleveland) and Assistant Minority Whip Leigh Herington (D., Kent). Mr. Johnson, who did not seek re-election, is facing federal charges of shaking down grocers for campaign contributions in exchange for favors.

No date for a caucus vote has been set, but it will be held before the end of the year.

Ohio Democrats look for answers

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 8

COLUMBUS — The low point for Ohio’s Democratic Party was supposed to be 1994.

That’s when Republicans won the governor’s mansion, swept every statewide nonjudicial race, and wrested away a Senate seat held for decades by a popular Democrat.

This year was supposed to be a step back in the right direction.

But instead, look what happened Tuesday: Republicans won the governor’s mansion, swept every statewide nonjudicial race, and wrested away a Senate seat held for decades by a popular Democrat.

Only Supreme Court Justice Francis Sweeney won a statewide race for the Democrats, who face four more years of Republican domination in state government. Party leaders will try to rethink their strategies in order to fight again in 2000.

Some Democrats were just plain embarrassed at the polls. The candidates for attorney general and auditor lost by more than 1.5 million votes. And in the two races Democrats felt they had a decent chance of winning – for governor and treasurer – Republicans had an unexpectedly easy time.

“We never had a strong message,” said Jim Ruvulo, a former state and Lucas County Demo cratic chairman.

“I’m absolutely befuddled,” said Paul Tipps, another former state party chairman. “I think they’ve got to go back to basics and start from there. They’ve got to figure out what the Republicans are doing that they aren’t.”

Mr. Ruvulo said the problems for the Democrats started at the top of the ticket, where Mr. Fisher and Mr. Taft started mudslinging in negative ads as far back as September.

“When you’ve got two candidates who don’t have great name recognition, and they start negative that early, they don’t attract people. They repel people,” he said. “They drive people to the sidelines, and Democrats can’t win with people on the sidelines.”

Turnout in Ohio was lower than expected, at only 48.1 per cent of registered voters.

The sweep is particularly disturbing to Ohio Democrats, considering that Tuesday was a good day for Democrats in other states around the country.

For decades, the party that controls the presidency has always lost seats in the midterm election. But even with the spectre of impeachment looming over President Clinton, Democrats nationwide still picked up seats in the House, not to mention key races like the California governor and New York’s Senate seat.

“We’re disappointed,” said state party chairman David Leland. “We took huge hits in 1990 and in 1994, and we’re still coming back.”

Mr. Ruvulo pinned the blame on the party’s lack of a strong message. Democratic candidates were too cautious, he said, and avoided issues that matter to voters, like education, which has dominated the state’s political discourse for the last two years.

“Education was off the table, and we should have been talking about it,” Mr. Ruvolo said. “As the party out of power, you can’t play it safe and win.”

Democrats, he said, should spend the next two years doing research to find out the topics that truly matter to their voters, and “put together a coherent, strong message. Not just mouthing the phrase `working families’ over and over ad nauseum.”

But Mr. Tipps said there just weren’t many solid statewide issues for Democrats to use this year. The economy is strong, and the health care issue was co-opted by Mr. Taft’s support for a patient’s bill of rights.

The school funding issue, he said, is too tied up in the state’s courts for either side to make much hay. He uses a basketball metaphor: “If the referee’s got the ball, neither side can score.”

Mr. Leland’s contract as chairman extends to May, 2000, and he said he expects to serve out his term, despite rumors that he might be ousted. Mr. Tipps said that a leadership change now would be missing the point.

“This is a serious foundation problem,” Mr. Tipps said. “They’ve got to figure out why the Democratic Party in Ohio is not communicating with the public. It’s not about personalities.”

Mr. Leland said there would be no radical changes in strategy or tactics. “We’ve got to do what we’ve always done,” he said. “This is just one battle. We’ve got to continue the fight.”