Watching Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes squirm and contort the reasoning about his double-dipping plans during the past week has been supremely entertaining to anyone who's followed his political career closely.
A former radio disc jockey, Rhodes has always had a flair for showmanship. Local reporters know he will willingly serve up a juicy quote criticizing some county official or department and it will be plain-spoken, not bogged down in bureaucratic jargon.
As Dusty tells it, he's the last honest person left in government, a veritable icon of vigilance and integrity.
Some of his over-the-top invective is to be expected. As the duly-elected auditor, it is Rhodes' job to oversee the county's financial operations, ensure it has enough money to meet obligations and that it doesn't exceed its budget. Too often, though, the timing of his criticism is curious and he does it with a little bit too much relish.
For example, take the August 2009 incident in which county commissioners rejected Rhodes' suggestion they give the county's luxury suites to the Reds and Bengals. In exchange, the auditor hoped the teams would agree to let the county carry less insurance on the stadiums and reduce its costs. Failing that, Rhodes hoped the county could “monetize” the suites by selling their use, instead of raffling it for free use by community service groups and foster parents.
Not a bad idea, as Hamilton County is facing massive deficits in the stadium account in coming years due to the lopsided lease negotiated by ex-Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, a Republican who — once booted from office — was quickly hired by the Bengals.
But after present-day commissioners told Rhodes they had tried negotiating with the teams to no avail, and that any money generated by leasing the county suites would revert to the Reds and the Bengals under the current deal, Dusty got testy.
That's when Rhodes requested the names and addresses of everyone who had used the county suites at the stadiums over the years. He was concerned, you see, that their use might constitute a taxable event that he must report to the Internal Revenue Service.
Let's do some math. Dusty first became auditor in 1990. Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000, while Great American Ball Park opened in 2003. Rhodes' sudden worry about the suites' use came after nine years of using one suite, and six years of using another.
Either Dusty A) had an epiphany, B) was negligent in his duties for years or C) simply was lashing out against political foes. Pick one. (I know which one I'd choose.)
Flash-forward to the present: The Enquirer reported Sept. 28 that Rhodes quietly had filed the paperwork necessary in February to let him begin “double-dipping” next year if he is reelected in November.
Double-dipping is the practice of retiring from public service so the person can begin collecting a pension, then getting rehired or reelected to the same position so the person can also draw a paycheck — in effect doubling that person's salary.
The practice is perfectly legal under Ohio law but is ethically dubious.
Although many practitioners will say keeping an experienced employee saves on training costs and retains institutional knowledge, critics counter that such long-serving employees inevitably are at the high-end of pay scales and hiring someone else would dramatically lower expenses.
A 2007 report on double-dipping by the Cleveland Plain Dealer estimated that 35,000 teachers, police officers and other public-sector workers are doubling-dipping taxpayers — with 15,000 in the Ohio Public Employees Retirement Fund, 13,000 in the State Teacher Retirement System and 7,000 in the School Employees Retirement System.
Unlike private-sector pensions or 401(k) plans, some public-sector plans are partially funded by taxpayers.
One outspoken critic of double-dipping over the past two decades was Rhodes.
Here's what he told the Plain Dealer about the practice, “It would be cheaper if I simply stole money from my neighbor, but that doesn’t make it right. This is an abuse of the system. You can put all the lipstick you want on the pig. But at the end of the day, it’s still a pig.”
There you have it, straight from Rhodes' own mouth. Dusty Rhodes is abusing the system. And it's not right.
Once Dusty's hypocrisy became public, the backlash began forming. Less than a week later, on Oct. 4, Rhodes decided to “clarify” for The Enquirer that he would donate most of his pension income to charity during the next four years if he was elected to another term in November. (I'm sure that fact merely slipped his mind when interviewed for the initial article.)
Although Rhodes filed his retirement paperwork nearly eight months earlier, neither his plan for double-dipping nor for charitable giving ever came up even once previously on the campaign trail.
But this isn't the first time Duplicitous Dusty has perpetrated a hoax on voters. He's been pulling the wool over their eyes for years.
Ever since first taking office 20 years ago, Rhodes has run as a Democrat. Back then, that was something of a liability in Hamilton County; he was the first Dem to win a countywide administrative office in two decades. But with his background in Delhi Township politics giving him West Side credibility and his political views harkening back to a different era, Rhodes appealed to the conservative GOP voters that dominated the scene.
In all likelihood, most casual voters probably only remembered Rhodes for his longtime radio show and for helping bring The Beatles to town for two concerts, in 1964 and 1966. Good ol' Dusty.
Rhodes won reelection in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006, as the county's political landscape changed around him. Where for years earlier he could get away relatively unscathed for criticizing the party whose time and resources he relied on for his campaigns, his indiscretions and disloyalties were becoming more apparent.
Then Barack Obama got elected and, like many white men of a certain age, a vein popped in Dusty's head. Around the same time, he discovered Facebook, truly a combustible combination.
Rhodes loves to throw red meat to conservatives on the Internet. On Sept. 15, while commenting about when Obama's health-care reforms would take effect, Dusty wrote, “The White House tried to assure Democratic Party candidates Monday that health-care reform will eventually be popular. Right now no lawmaker wants to admit to being there at the bill's creation. For some reason nothing in the Obama administration has a birth certificate.”
At least Dusty's secured the crucial birther vote.
A day earlier, an article about Michelle Obama urging fast food restaurants to add healthier options to their menus as a way to combat childhood obesity was just too much for Rhodes to handle. “Now they're trying to tell us what we can eat and trying to tell restaurants what they can serve. Remember when this used to be a free country? This is absolutely nuts,” Rhodes opined. (Westwood activist Mary Kuhl “liked” that comment, by the way.)
In recent years, Rhodes has made it his pasttime to slam the County Commission's Democratic majority despite its spending cuts, and far more than he did with their free-spending Republican predecessors. Perhaps having too much free time on his hands, Rhodes also began writing regular dispatches for the Cincinnati Tea Party's blog and attending its meetings.
And despite ridiculing commissioners for the Bengals stadium deal and The Banks riverfront project, Rhodes held a press conference in September 2009 to defend Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding. That's the guy who led the campaign for the stadium tax and who works for the Bengals. It happened right after Berding was unendorsed by the Democratic Party for battling with fellow Dems over the years. Maybe Dusty was worried he was next?
In May, when I told Rhodes I was planning a column on whether he truly was a Democrat and deserved the party's backing, he declined comment and alleged I had a vendetta against him.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke, however, did respond.
“The Democratic Party is and should be a party of the big tent,” Burke wrote. “Dusty helps prove that point. Is he more conservative than some of us like? He sure is. Do I wish he wasn't writing for the Tea Party? Yes. Or attending Republican/COAST events? You bet. But Dusty also regularly attends Democratic Party events.
“He is an active member of our Executive Committee, has served on our nominating committees and frequently is at our ward clubs,” he added. “I suspect, in the last 25 years, he has been at more Reading Democratic Party Steak Fries and Norwood Democratic Cookouts than any other Democrat from outside those communities. He also has received consistently strong support from organized labor.
“The bottom line is, Dusty has run a very good Auditor's Office free from scandal,” Burke wrote. “Is he controversial? Sure, but that is part of the inherent role of an auditor ... and it is a role Dusty fills well, even if it does drive us crazy on occasion.”
Free from scandal? Maybe. Free from outdated or questionable practices? Not really.
Hamilton County was the only county in Ohio to be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the auditor's failure to make accurate and timely payroll deductions and disbursements. Rhodes blamed it on a computer error. He also sent out dog license renewals late, which he tried to blame on commissioners but which is his office's responsibility.
Further, the county faces an increasing number of appeals for property tax reevaluations because Rhodes mostly relies on “drive-by” appraisals of houses and Google Maps, rather than having real people conduct them like most other counties do.
All of which brings us to Rhodes' opponent this year, Republican Tom Brinkman Jr., an ex-state representative who also is a leader of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).
“When I first entered elective office, I admired Dusty's efforts and felt that we needed him as a watchdog over the county's fiscal issues,” Brinkman said. “But now, after 20 years as county auditor, he has become more of the problem than the solution. Certainly the revelation that he is participating in the very practice he has condemned for 20 years is not only an outrage, but undermines any shred of credibility he has left on these issues.”
Although I certainly don't agree with Brinkman on some issues, he is exactly as he sells himself to voters.
The question for Democrats before they go to the polls is, “Does Dusty represent your values?” The question for Republicans is, “Why pick a 'Republican-lite' candidate when you can have the real thing?'”
Maybe it's time voters help Dusty stay true to his ideals — and have Democrats finally adhere to theirs — and retire him as county auditor. He will enjoy spending his days yelling at the neighbor kids from his front porch.
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