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02-22-06 Mercer County GOP embroiled in legal flap

By Tim Cox

  A group of local Republicans, in their rush to field a candidate to oppose Democrat Mark Giesige for the county auditor's office, may have broken some election laws.

  Board of elections members held up certification of David Kaiser's petition to run as GOP candidate for auditor at Tuesday's meeting, after they discussed the issue for 45 minutes in executive session with county Prosecutor Andy Hinders.

  Supporters of Kaiser of St. Henry circulated petitions for his candidacy in the courthouse and county offices last Thursday, the final day for petitions to be filed with the county elections board. The political flap stems from allegations that commissioners improperly pressured or coerced a county employee into signing Kaiser's petition.

  The election board's private executive session was called to discuss "pending litigation," and The Daily Standard has learned from several independent sources that the potential court action could involve criminal charges sought against several people, including all three Mercer County Commissioners.

  Hinders has declined comment on the issue.  When asked why they delayed certification of the petitions, board members pointed to their private discussion with Hinders and declined further comment.

  Details are somewhat sketchy, but scuttlebutt among local political insiders indicates that Kaiser and supporters were in the commissioners' office last week seeking support for his candidacy. They collected signatures from numerous Republican county office holders and employees during business hours.

  Sources say Kent Hinton, who works for the commissioners as the county's solid waste and sanitary sewer manager, did not want to sign the petition and felt pressured to do so. His son, Jeremy Hinton, works in the county tax map office under Giesige, Kaiser's opponent.

  Hinton refused to discuss the issue when contacted recently by the newspaper.

  Hinton's wife, Dawn, also signed Kaiser's petition. She works in Mercer County Treasurer Doris Rutschilling's office.

  An emergency meeting of the elections board has been scheduled this afternoon to consider certification of the election petitions. It remains unknown whether the political flap could invalidate Kaiser's petition.

  Commissioner Jim Zehringer recounted the story this morning for The Daily Standard. Zehringer admits he was the one who summoned Hinton to the commissioners' office, but denies doing anything wrong.

  "Hell no" was Zehringer's emphatic response when asked if he believes he did anything ethically or criminally wrong in seeking Hinton's support for Kaiser. "This is laughable; utterly ridiculous. We didn't force him to do anything."

  If Hinton was hesitant about signing Kaiser's papers, he didn't show it, said Zehringer, adding that he was somewhat hesitant himself about signing because he considers Giesige to be a "good friend."

  Numerous other county officials -- and in some cases their spouses -- also signed Kaiser's petition. They include the other two commissioners, Jerry Laffin and Bob Nuding, Clerk of Courts Jim Highley, Rutschilling, county Clerk-Administrator Kim Everman, Probate Judge Mary Pat Zitter and county Engineer Jim Wiechart.

  Wiechart's signature was not counted by elections officials because he technically still remains a Democrat, although he has said he will switch to the Republican Party during the next primary election.

  Laffin said he did not want to discuss the issue because of the specter of "pending litigation." He denied any wrongdoing, though.

  "Kent's a grown man. He's not a child," Laffin said. "Nobody made him do anything."

  Nuding said he does not believe any county official did anything wrong in seeking signers for Kaiser's petition. Nuding said he did not participate in urging others to sign and said he is not even sure he was in the room when Hinton put his name on the petition.

  Kaiser could not be reached for comment this morning.


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