Monday, January 08, 2007

Rife with Corruption

Riffe mural
Vern Riffe floodwall mural, Portsmouth

As an English professor newly arrived in south-central Ohio in 1989, I thought it was ironic that the name of the most powerful politician in Scioto County, and some might argue the second most powerful politician in the state of Ohio, was named Riffe, Vernal G. Riffe, Jr. (1925-1997), the now deceased long-time speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. The irony is that there is an adjective, rife, pronounced like Riffe, which means very prevalent or abundant, especially in regard to something harmful or bad, such as diseases, crime, or corruption. The word rife is often accompanied by the preposition with, as in “rife with corruption.” Familiar with the East Coast ethnic variety of crime and corruption, it took me a while to recognize just how rife the crime and corruption in an Appalachian river town could be. Pious, self-righteous, and hypocritical, it has a style all its own. Instead of the mob, you have to beware of “foundations”; instead of “goombahs,” you have to watch out for “philanthropists.” When I started this blog several years ago, I had no trouble coming up with a name: River Vices.

But I did not think Vern Riffe was responsible for our river vices. Sure, he cut ethical corners and did not tolerate dissenters, and he had no patience with people who did not follow his wishes, but he was a masterful politician, working effectively with his Democratic colleagues and Republican allies on behalf of his constituents. He brought home the bacon to southern Ohio, and Shawnee State would not have become a university without him. Riffe reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous observation, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Shawnee State University is certainly the lengthened shadow of Vern Riffe, whose friendship with Republican Governor James A. Rhodes (1909-2001), demonstrated how successful and shrewd a politician the New Boston native was. The good that the university has done in making higher education accessible to Appalachian residents would not have been possible without “the Speaker,” as he was often reverently called.

But there was a price to be paid for all the financial and material assistance Riffe funneled into his district. Political pork is bad for the soul of any community that depends on it, and few communities became more dependent on pork than Portsmouth in the Riffe era. Pork doesn’t produce prosperity; it produces dependency, patronage, and corruption. It turned Portsmouth into Porksmouth. I realized this when, as president of the faculty union, I became involved with the chronically poisonous politics of the university. Shawnee State University, to use a Calvinist metaphor, was conceived in sin, in political sin, you might say, and it has not yet transcended its shady origins. SSU was born out of wedlock. Authorities in Ohio higher education did not want it. Taxpayers elsewhere in Ohio, to the extent that they were aware what was happening, did not want it. But Riffe wanted it and given his influence and power, he got it, even if he had to knock up the state of Ohio to get it.

Most of the oldest universities in America were founded by or closely associated with religious denominations. Shawnee State was founded by and closely associated with one Democrat, with a big assist from a Republican, Governor Rhodes, who unfortunately will be remembered not for what he did for the students of Shawnee State but what he did to the students of Kent State when he ordered out the National Guard in May 1970 with accompanying inflammatory remarks that some feel contributed to the killing of four students and the wounding of nine others, some of whom had nothing to do with the demonstrators. When I look at the James A. Rhodes Athletic Center at Shawnee State, I cannot help remembering Kent State, and I cannot help remembering being at the dedication of the Rhodes Center, when Rhodes and Riffe, the controversial father and godfather of the university, shared the same platform. At the end of his career, Riffe was in trouble over campaign ethic violations.

While he was alive, Riffe kept control of Shawnee State, as he did of the Ohio House, with an iron hand in a kidskin glove. The Wikipedia Encyclopedia says SSU is sometimes known as “Vern Riffe State. U.” Academic standards and academic freedom were not Riffe’s highest priorities. When Ralph Nader was allowed to speak on campus about the shenanigans of the insurance industry, to which Riffe was closely tied, there was hell to pay on campus, and the SSU president who declined to un-invite Nader lost his job as a result. Or so I’d heard. With Riffe’s death, control of the university passed as a matter of course to the local Republicans, who ran SSU, following Riffe’s example, as a political fiefdom. In the first ten years of its existence, from 1986 to 1996, in spite of millions of dollars allocated to it by the Riffe-controlled legislature, the university was annually ranked as one of the worst in the nation by U.S. News. This continued to be the case even after Riffe was gone, for traditions of incompetence and corruption die hard, whether Democrats or Republicans are in control. Unfortunately, the Republicans lacked Riffe’s political adeptness and made things at the university even worse.

Vernal G. Riffe, III

The name Vernal G. Riffe lives on in southern Ohio in the person of Vernal G. “Skip” Riffe, III, the Speaker’s son, who has served as the County Commissioner for a number of terms. He was easily reelected last November. Rumors about the junior Riffe’s personal life have circulated locally for a number of years, as did rumors about his father’s personal life. Rumors like these circulate about politicians whether there is any truth to them or not. But in the last several months, the rumors about the Speaker's son have gained some credence because a woman from northern Ohio, identifying herself only as “Liv,” short for Olivia, began communicating by email and telephone with several people in Portsmouth, claiming to have been Skip Riffe’s mistress for several years, and to be pregnant with his child. The possibility of Olivia making these charges public during a political campaign was not something even a Riffe could ignore, so he reportedly made efforts to pacify her prior to the election. But in the meanwhile it had become evident she was pregnant.

Olivia in Portsmouth, 2004

Emails purporting to be from him to her are appearing on Moe’s Forum, where their affair, though not their names, was first revealed by Lee Scott in a posting headed, “Local politician to become a Dad again . . . Not by wife.” Threads are now running on Moe’s Forum under “Mistress” and “Love Affair,” and those threads can be expected to get longer and longer.

If this was all Olivia claimed, that she was the mistress of and made pregnant by Riffe, I would not be writing about her here, because private consenting relationships by adults, whether married or not, is their business. If all local politicians and public officials who have been guilty of adultery were stoned to death, as women once were, many public meetings and perhaps city and county government would grind to a halt. The Portsmouth City Council could probably not muster a quorum. But it is not adultery or pregnancy but the apparent abuse of power and influence, and the expenditure of public funds by a public official, that is the important issue. Whether or not Olivia is pregnant and whether or not Skip Riffe is the father of her soon-to-be-born-child, and whether or not he abandoned her or treated her shabbily – all this is not the public’s business: but state business is the public’s business and if he was mixing business with pleasure, then that is another matter. Olivia claims, and has posted emails to back up her claims, that in the course of their relationship she usually was his companion on official state-business trips, driving in official vehicles and sharing his state-paid-for motel rooms and meals. She was a part of his public as well as his personal life, and she claims to have been with him when he met other county officials, including law enforcement officers. She was the unofficial first lady of Scioto County.

In a Family Way

Though now seven months pregnant (as shown left on her MySpace blog), Olivia is not an innocent victim. She knew she was getting involved with a married man. I have learned that she bore another child out of wedlock about fifteen years ago, and has had a troubled relationship with the father of that child. History seems to be repeating itself. Because she claims to be carrying the child of a Riffe, she must not give even the appearance of trying to hold Scioto County’s first family up for ransom. If going public was her way of trying to get him to accept responsibility, then she should look for opportunities to settle with him privately, and not continue to raise the stakes higher than she needs to. If she just wants to punish him, she will probably end up punishing herself and her teen-aged child, as well.

We can understand why she is furious with Skip. What was he thinking when he carried on openly with her? Or was he thinking at all? Carrying the name Vernal G. Riffe, in addition to being an advantage, must be a burden. The Riffes are the equivalent of Appalachian royalty. As the sign on Route 23 says, south-central Ohio is Riffe Country. But there are limits to the lattitude residents of Riffe country will allow those bearing the name Riffe. Vernal G. Riffe, III, may be about to find out what those limits are. Even in the middle of this mild winter we are having, this matter, if not resolved soon, is going to snowball, as the posting of this blog should indicate.

Skip and Alice Cooper_edited

Skip Riffe posing with Alice Cooper in photo from MySpace blog of Vern Riffe IV.