Thursday, January 05, 2006

Droit du Seigner

Scioto County Courthouse
Scioto County Courthouse

Native American Russell Cooper, who tried to run for Portsmouth City Council last year, was accused of being a forger. As a result of the City Clerk’s and the City Solicitor’s investigations, Cooper was charged with having forged signatures on his election petitions.

The forgery charges against Cooper have since been dropped, as veterans in the reform movement had predicted they would be once they had served their political purpose, which was to prevent Cooper from effectively challenging David Malone for the Ward 2 council seat in a special recall election. Viewed as hypocritical and incompetent by a number of voters in his ward, Malone, the “praying councilman,” was perhaps the member most vulnerable to recall. The rush to judgment on the part of City Clerk Aeh and City Solicitor David Kuhn on Cooper’s alleged forgeries had the effect of keeping a rubber-stamp incumbent, David Malone, on the city council and a reform candidate, Cooper, off.

I have copies of Cooper’s petitions and I can see that there are questionable signatures on them, but since several of those whose signatures were allegedly forged had extensive criminal records, to immediately assume that it was Cooper who was responsible for the alleged forgeries was a convenient way to scuttle his candidacy. Cooper had no trouble finding enough Ward 2 voters willing to sign his petition, so why would he have forged signatures? It does not make sense. Where is the motivation?


Cooper (left) with lawyer as he faced charges of forgery

I believe there is a double standard in Portsmouth when it comes to forgers and alleged forgers, depending upon whether they are supporters or critics of the over-privileged of Portsmouth. Remember that convicted forger Michael Malone, who was a supporter, not a critic of the over-privileged, came within one vote of defeating his rival, the reformer Bob Mollette, in a city council recall election in 2004. Michael Malone, brother of councilman David Malone, claims he asked City Solicitor David Kuhn and City Clerk Jo Ann Aeh whether he could, as a felon who had been convicted of forgery, run for public office. Malone claimed he was told he could run. In the course of Michael Malone’s campaign, no one revealed that he was a convicted forger, not the City Solicitor, not the City Clerk, not his brother David, not the Portsmouth Daily Times, and not anyone else. The voters in Ward 3 were kept in the dark, as was everyone else. It was only after the election that Harold Daub discovered Michael Malone had served time for forgery. The double standard for forgers had probably protected Michael Malone, who had made it clear during the campaign that he was not one of the troublemakers, not one of the reformers, who were trying to recall elected officials.

In addition to having copies of Cooper’s disputed election petitions, I also have in my possession a photocopy of an older document that could serve as a classic example of the double standard that exists in Portsmouth in regard to forgers, which is a certified copy of a marriage license that is on file in the probate offices in Scioto County courthouse. That license purports to show that a marriage took place back in the 1960s between a Portsmouth woman and a soldier who was living at the time, temporarily, in Athens, Ohio. In researching the names on the marriage license, I found no evidence of the existence of the soldier, or anyone else whose name is on it except Scioto County Probate Judge Paul E. Fowler and the putative bride.

Fowler Building

It has been known for years by friends of the woman that the marriage in question never took place, and that the woman in question had been impregnated by Fowler, a member of an old and prominent Portsmouth family. The Fowler Building, in downtown Portsmouth, is an architectural reminder of the importance of the Fowler family. In his capacity as probate judge, Fowler signed the marriage license for a marriage that I could find no evidence had ever taken place. The marriage certificate is, as far as I have been able to determine, a forgery, apparently to cover up the fact that the “bride” listed on it was carrying Judge Fowler’s child. He signed a marriage license that has the earmarks of a clumsy forgery that contains the fictitious name and therefore the forged signature of a husband who did not exist, and the forged signature of a minister who, as far as I could discover, also did not exist, although I did find a minister with the same unusual name who lived in St. Louis in the late 1800s. The certificate also contains the names of the groom’s parents, whose existence I could not confirm. I have no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the forgery, but I came up with an imaginary forgery in a short story for a blog in River Vices.

The broader implications of the unusual marriage license are worth noting. Probate records are what make civil society possible. Our legal identity, who we are as citizens, depends upon such records. The family, on which society as we know it depends, needs to keep clear who is a father and mother and who is a son and daughter. Without those family distinctions remaining clear and without probate records to prove their accuracy, we could end up singing, in the words of a comic song, “I’m my own grandpa.” How could a judge charged with the responsibility for assuring the integrity of probate records have anything to do with the criminal falsification of even one of those records? We don’t expect a fire chief to burn a church down or a lifeguard to drown someone. How could a family man and pillar of the community, how could a member of the Wesley Methodist Church and the distinguished president of the National Judges Association, how could a former member of the Ohio state legislature and an assistant attorney general of Ohio, how could a respected person in a position of public trust have dared to be party to an act that at the very least would have scandalized his family and ruined his career, and probably have resulted in some kind of jail time? I heard Newt Gingrich, of all people, recently say on TV, in a discussion of the Abramoff scandal, in which Ohio congressman Ney is implicated, that public officials who betray their public trust should be shown no mercy.

I have spent a several years trying to figure out the answer to why Judge Fowler did what he apparently did. Some of those who knew him thought he was eccentric, but no one considered him crazy. So the only answer I can come up with is that he dared to do what he did because the over-privileged of Portsmouth, the people in positions of authority, have been getting away with so much for so long that they are conditioned to think they are above the law. After all, who was going to look into the matter, even if they heard rumors of Fowler's waywardness? Who was going to go poking around in probate records? The city or county prosecutor? A reporter for the Portsmouth Daily Times? Fat chance.

A fire chief is in the best situation to get away with arson and a probate judge to falsify probate records, but if there is a pregnant woman in the picture any advantages the fire chief or judge has are more than outweighed by the desperateness of his situation. The original marriage license, on file at the county courthouse, is so obviously a frantic whited-out cut-and-paste document that it resembles a ransom note as much as a marriage license. It would not have taken a Sherlock Holmes or a Woodward and Bernstein to conclude there was something very suspicious about it. The marriage certificate indicates forgery far more than do Russ Cooper’s election petitions do, but Cooper is not one of Portsmouth's over-privileged, and that makes all the difference.

I would not have written about an old marriage license and exhumed this matter if it did not have direct relevance to the central theme of River Vices, which is the outrageous but long-running abuse of power on the part of the over-privileged of Portsmouth. However, compared to some of the crooked characters who control Portsmouth today, Judge Fowler was a scholar and a gentleman.

There is something feudal about social relations in Scioto County, and droit du seigner, the supposed right of the feudal lord to spend the first night with the brides of his lowly subjects, may have been one of the lordly privileges Fowler felt he was entitled to, although in this case the groom appears to have been imaginary. A probate judge signed off on a forged marriage license that covered up illicit behavior, and he was never called to account for it. By contrast, a native American who presumed to run for public office against one of the adulterous pawns of the over-privileged was arrested and accused of forging signatures on election petitions on the basis of a very dubious evidence.

I regret that in this blog I may be toppling a departed pillar of the community, just as a bulldozer last November toppled the tower of the Wesley Methodist Church, which Fowler, ironically, belonged to. But I am not doing it just to make room for another parking lot. I am doing it to make way for a truth, unfortunately an unpleasant truth, and that is that even one of the most respected and trusted of Portsmouth's over-privileged could not resist the temptation of thinking he was a law unto himself. And if that is what a "gentleman and a scholar" dared to do, it is even worse now with some of the unscrupulous characters who are in positions of authority and influence in our community, characters who have been screwing the public so long they think it is their birthright, like the droit du seigner.