MEDINA — Medina County Treasurer John Burke’s attorney has sent a “cease and desist” letter to the state and county Democratic Party leaders demanding they stop using “untruths” about him in campaign advertisements or face legal action.
The Democrats are pushing back, saying the claims in the advertisements are backed by facts.
Burke, a Republican, is running for re-election Nov. 6. He is opposed by Democrat Joan Heller, the county’s chief deputy auditor.
In the letter, attorney Theodore Lesiak charges that the Democrats’ “Bye Bye Burke” campaign is “propagating several untruths regarding Mr. Burke through various campaign materials, including but not limited to robo calls, press releases, letters to the editor, mailers and YouTube videos.”
Lesiak cited statements in the campaign ads concerning three issues:
• Burke’s conviction in 1997 on misdemeanor charges involving state tax forms filed for a car wash and beverage store he owned in Medina.
• 1998 bankruptcy filing for that business.
• That he has poorly managed the finances of the treasurer’s office.
Lesiak flatly denied claims in the campaign ads stating that Burke pleaded guilty to a lesser charge to avoid going to jail.
Lesiak said the misdemeanor charges were “separate from the indicted charge,” which were felonies carrying possible jail time.
Burke was indicted in July 1997 by a Medina County grand jury on six counts of filing false tax returns — felonies carrying maximum penalties of 18 years in prison.
Those charges were dropped after he agreed to plead guilty to six minor misdemeanor counts of “failure of any agent to report and testify” to information on the forms.
Burke was fined $1,500 and ordered to pay $12,924 in back taxes owed on his business.
His attorney in that case said Burke didn’t knowingly do anything wrong — he simply signed the tax returns prepared by his accountants.
If Burke had been convicted of the original felony charges, he would have been forced to give up the treasurer’s post, which he had held since 1994, when he was appointed to replace retiring Betty Rom.
John Welker, head of the county Democrats, said Lesiak was misrepresenting what happened in court. He cited news stories about the case from The Gazette and other area newspapers that reported that the felony charges were dropped as part of a plea bargain.
“We found our proof right there,” Welker said. “Right there in the news articles.”
In a news release, Welker also included news articles reporting that Burke had more than $636,000 in debts when he filed for bankruptcy in 1998.
Welker said county records back the campaign criticisms of Burke’s financial management in office.
The Democrats’ news release included a listing of expenditures in the treasurer’s office showing an increase in spending between 2006 and 2011 of about 10.4 percent.
Welker also pointed to travel expenses for Burke totaling $77,820 since 1992 regarding transparency.
“I know he has continuing education credits, but he takes a trip to Hawaii,” Welker said. “Can’t you find a (class) closer?”
Contacted by phone Tuesday, Burke declined to comment on Welker’s response or his news release.
“I’m not going to jeopardize any cause of (legal) action by commenting,” he said, referring all questions to Lesiak.
Lesiak could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In his letter, Lesiak doesn’t dispute the amount in travel expenses, but said the Democrats misled voters, arguing the travel is typical for any county treasurer.
“You cite Mr. Burke’s travel expenses but fail to mention that these were legitimate expenses that any treasurer would have to undertake to maintain certifications of the office,” Lesiak wrote in his letter.
Contact Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.