Ohio Elections Commission votes to prosecute Newburgh Heights mayor over campaign-finance violations

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Elections Commission has voted to refer Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins for prosecution over his misuse of roughly $134,000 in campaign funds to cover his personal expenses.

© Grant Segall/The Plain Dealer/Grant Segall/The Plain Dealer Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins, announced a plan to attract new college-educated homeowners to the city: The city wants to pay off their students loans. Grant Segall/The Plain Dealer

Commissioners voted 5-2 on Thursday to refer Elkins for prosecution, saying the commission needed to make a tough statement on what they viewed as a precedent-setting case. The two ‘no’ votes came from Democrats Dennis Brommer and Otto Beatty, who argued the commission should only impose a fine, while Democrat Charleta Tavares joined Republicans D. Michael Crites, Catherine Cunningham, Natasha Kaufman and independent A. Scott Norman in voting ‘yes.’

The commission also voted to fine Elkins’ campaign $5,000 and to impose a $500 fine upon his campaign treasurer, Bernadette Weaver.

“This is as I’ve indicated previously … probably the most egregious and blatant violation I’ve seen during my tenure on this commission,” said Crites, a former federal prosecutor and past state attorney general candidate who chairs the elections commission.

The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office is expected to take up the case, and previously has said a felony charge is “fully on the table.” Elkins also could be charged with a misdemeanor or fined. The FBI also might be involved — the agency since October 2019 has regularly requested Elkins’ campaign finance reports as they’ve been filed, according to officials at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

Elkins didn’t attend Thursday’s virtual elections commission meeting. He and his attorney, Jeffrey Ruppert, didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.

Elkins, a Democrat, has been mayor of Newburgh Heights, a Cleveland suburb of roughly 1,700 people, since 2011. He is actively involved in county Democratic politics, including unsuccessfully seeking leadership of the county party in 2018. He is a political director for former state Sen. Nina Turner’s campaign for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, which includes Cleveland and Newburgh Heights. A request seeking comment has been left with the Turner campaign.

Elkins has said the investigation began as a vendetta for challenging party leaders.

But Elkins also has admitted to misusing more than $134,100 of his campaign funds on 650 occasions from 2015 to 2019, using a campaign debit card to cover routine personal expenses. He said he always repaid the account and didn’t realize what he was doing was illegal until it was pointed out to him.

State law prohibits politicians from using their campaign accounts to pay for personal expenses.

The case began when the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections made a referral in June 2019 after an audit found Elkins’ reported fund balances didn’t match his actual account spending. A hearing initially was set for January 2020, but was postponed several times, with the coronavirus pandemic eventually playing a factor.

Ruppert, Elkins’ attorney, previously said the elections commission should only fine Elkins.

“There was no real intent to deceive here,” Ruppert said during a March 25 meeting. “There certainly is a misunderstanding of the law. It was certainly sloppy, and it’s certainly not best campaign practices, and questionable whether it was a smart thing to do.”

Elkins has called his use of his campaign fund “a bad habit.”

“There is not a good explanation for the co-mingling, and I readily and forthrightly admit that,” Elkins said during the March 25 meeting.

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