Erie County prosecutor prepares to delve into Finkbeiner ethics case

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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SANDUSKY — The prosecutor met the mayor once before, before a tale of broken laws twisted their futures together.

It was at a Lucas County Democratic Party dinner a few years ago. Kevin Baxter, Erie County’s prosecutor and a rising star in the Democratic Party, was introduced by a mutual friend to Carty Finkbeiner, mayor of northwest Ohio’s largest city – Toledo.

“He was very nice,” the prosecutor recalls.

They will certainly meet again. Last Monday, Mr. Baxter was appointed special prosecutor in the case against the mayor, in which Mr. Finkbeiner stands accused of failing to mention on financial disclosure forms a $10,000 payment he received in a real-estate deal that his administration helped arrange. For four years, the Ohio Ethics Commission has been investigating that 1994 sale of his Commodore Island condominium. Monarch Development Co. paid Mr. Finkbeiner $10,000 to vacate his condo early. The space, including condos owned by 14 others, was cleared for construction of Owens Cornings’s world headquarters.

So the prosecutor will decide if the mayor ever sees trial.

Mr. Baxter’s chief call will be whether to accept a plea bargain the mayor has made with the commission. If he does, the mayor likely would avoid jail time. If not, there could be a trial.

Mr. Baxter said he hasn’t looked into the case enough to guess what he’ll do. Sandusky officials, who have dealt with him since he became a prosecutor in 1989, say they expect Mr. Baxter to be fair, but said he has favored plea agreements in the past.

“In every case I’ve ever been involved with, he’s offered a plea,” said Jeff Whitacre, the chief assistant to Erie County’s public defender for the last two years. “How good a plea it is depends on how good the state’s evidence is. But I think he generally likes to see the cases resolved short of trial.”

If the Finkbeiner plea agreement is accepted, Mr. Baxter would agree not to charge the mayor with two first-degree misdemeanors, in exchange for a guilty plea on a fourth-degree misdemeanor. The mayor then could be sentenced to up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine, but first-time offenders rarely are given jail time.

It’s a decision to be made by a 41-year-old prosecutor with political aspirations and the respect of his colleagues. Kevin Baxter was born and raised in Sandusky, one of eight children, and attended Ohio University and Ohio Northern University law school.

In 1988, he was elected Erie County prosecutor, six years out of law school. In December, 1997, he was elected president of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, a sign of his colleagues’ respect.

“He’s very diligent. If he thinks he’s right, he’s not going to have a tendency to back off,” said John Kirwin, who opposed Mr. Baxter in the high-profile Ollie Mastronardi case. Mastronardi, a Canadian millionaire, drove his racing boat into a fishing boat docked at a restaurant on Kelleys Island. The crash killed a Cleveland area man; Mastronardi was drunk.

Mr. Baxter played a part in judicial history when he successfully prosecuted three Hell’s Angels on murder charges stemming from a 1989 incident in which a Sandusky record store clerk was shot 13 times.

In a separate federal weapon trial in which Mr. Baxter assisted, DNA evidence was ruled admissible in a federal case for the first time. Opposing the prosecution team were, among others, Barry Scheck of O.J. Simpson fame and the late ACLU lawyer William Kuntsler.

With that sort of background, Mr. Baxter is regularly asked to serve as a special prosecutor. He takes on about a dozen or so cases a year outside his jurisdiction, he said, often in Medina or Lucas counties.

In Toledo, he is serving as special prosecutor in the Elizabeth Kirkhope case. She faces three felonies stemming from a March 18 alleged drunken-driving accident that killed her passenger, law student Matthew Wargo.

When a former assistant Lucas County prosecutor was accused of tampering with state documents last year, Mr. Baxter handled the case. When there were questions about Medina County prosecutors’ actions in the Audrey Iocona case – in which Miss Iocona, a high school cheerleader, is accused of killing her newborn child – Mr. Baxter was called in.

He said he does not accept payment for any of his assignments out of Erie County, because he sees it as part of his job. “I look at it as part of the obligation of a prosecutor,” he said. “You’re representing the county, but also the state of Ohio.”

Mr. Whitacre said the regular work makes him more battle-test ed for cases like Mr. Finkbeiner’s.

“He’s used to going into cases that are high-profile, where there’s going to be some heat involved,” Mr. Whitacre said. “He’s generally very good at that.”

On June 4, Mr. Baxter will travel to Columbus to speak with David Freel and representatives of the Ohio Ethics Commission. After that meeting, Mr. Baxter will decide how to proceed.

“It may be a case where we need to do a lot more investigating, or it may be a case where I say there isn’t really good evidence to support it,” Mr. Baxter said. “Or I may think the proposed agreement is good and worth agreeing to.”

According to his colleagues, Mr. Baxter likely will put practical considerations first in his decision. “He gets the job done,” said Erie County Common Pleas Judge Ann Maschari. “He’s very practical minded, and it’s very easy to work with him. He’s an excellent, excellent prosecutor.”

His successes in high-profile cases have made Mr. Baxter a likely candidate for a higher post. Last year, he considered running for Ohio attorney general and secretary of state. He threw his name in the ring for the attorney general’s job, but pulled back before the state party formally endorsed anyone. He now says his young son – Kevin, age 13 months – might discourage him from the rigors of the campaign trail.

“I think he’d do quite well in a statewide election,” Judge Maschari said. “He’s very likable, and he’s done well in this county.”

In his last political campaign, in 1996, Mr. Baxter distributed campaign funds to more than a dozen northern Ohio Democrats, from U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland) to State Rep. Darrell Opfer (D., Oak Harbor).

He has given money to several Toledo area Democratic groups, including small gifts to the Lucas County Democratic Party, the West Side Democratic Club, and the African-American Democratic Caucus of Toledo – all of which would be normal contributions for someone seeking to broaden a political base. He said he has never given money to any of Mr. Finkbeiner’s campaigns. Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates removed herself from the case because she and the mayor have contributed to one another’s races.

Mr. Baxter insists his political affiliation will not be a factor in the case, which involves one of northwest Ohio’s most powerful Democrats. Others who have dealt with him concur. “He doesn’t think of justice according to party,” Judge Maschari said. “He’s not afraid to step on toes.”