Saturday, October 02, 2004

Tangled Web

city_council picture

Portsmouth City Council c. 2000
From left to right rear are Solicitor Kuhn, Mayor Bauer and City Clerk Aeh.

“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we get involved in real estate deals.”

A hearing on the now notorious purchase by the city of Portsmouth of the Marting’s department store building was held last Thursday, September 30th, 2004, in the Court of Common Pleas on the third floor of the Scioto County Courthouse. The hearing was held in connection with a suit brought by Robert Mollette against the Portsmouth City Council. The chief witness was City Clerk Jo Ann Aeh, who was questioned by City Solicitor David Kuhn and cross-examined by the attorney for Mollette. Ms. Aeh’s testimony in the dimly lit, acoustically challenged, drafty chamber of the Common Pleas court will be little noted nor long remembered, but it is a classic example of the denial, deception, and double-talk that those who defend the Marting purchase have to engage in.

At the outset, Ms. Aeh appeared to be a self-assured, even haughty witness. She prided herself on her efficiency and accuracy as City Clerk, and she was obviously impatient with the whole procedure; at times she could not hide her contempt for the line of questioning that Mollette’s attorney was following, especially when he made a few missteps. Her general position was that nothing improper had occurred in city government prior to the purchase of the Marting’s building. She was absolutely confident of her record keeping in regard to the number of meetings that had been held to discuss the purchase of the building. When her testimony regarding the number of meetings related to Marting’s was shown by Mollette’s attorney to be at variance with the testimony of five city council members who had been deposed in the previous week – depositions Ms. Aeh had not seen – she said the council members’ memories were obviously faulty. It was then the turn of Mollette’s attorney to be contemptuous.

Ms. Aeh may be as well-organized and efficient as she implies she is, but she is caught in a web of deceit woven by more clever and less scrupulous hands than her own. The more accurate, reliable, and upright she tried to be, the more hopelessly she got ensnared in the tangled web, and the more morally compromised she became. At one point, while she was quibbling about the meetings, the judge said to her (I had trouble believing what I was hearing) that the reason council members were meeting with attorney Clayton Johnson in groups of threes was obviously an attempt by those involved to get around provisions of Ohio’s Sunshine laws, since the presence of four council members would have made it an official meeting and open to the public. Why did those meeting in the offices of Johnson and Oliver not want the public to know what they were doing? Could it be because they were about to rip off the public?

On Portsmouth's John Street there’s a lot of trafficking in sex and drugs by those without the education and connections that would allow them to make a killing in the professions or in real estate. Every real estate deal in Portsmouth is an opportunity for someone – often more than one party – to make a dishonest dollar – dishonest though not necessarily illegal. From the shenanigans at Shawnee State in connection with the purchase of a home for the university president, I learned how these shady real estate deals are pulled off, how these webs get woven and tangled. The Marting’s deal is different only quantitatively; it was just too big and crooked a deal, too wide a web, however clever the weaver, not to entangle and compromise others. It remains to be seen whether anybody besides Mayor Bauer, who was recalled by the voters, will be made to pay for the Marting’s purchase.

Robert Forrey