By Mary McCarty and Laura A. Bischoff
Before he was led away in handcuffs after being charged with theft in office, money laundering and other felony charges, Clayton Luckie seemed the epitome of the hometown success story.
He grew up in a middle-class West Dayton family and played basketball at Chaminade-Julienne High School, graduating in 1981. After serving 10 years on the Dayton school board, he was elected to the legislature representing Dayton’s 39th House District.
He drove a Cadillac Escalade, wore finely-tailored suits and bought a home for his mother in Springboro.
“I was really impressed by how good he was to his mother,” noted Mario Gallin, who was often an adversary on the Dayton school board. “That seemed counter to his image as the super politician.”
Some privately wondered how Luckie’s lifestyle reconciled with his $68,000 income as a state representative and less than $10,000 from his part-time job as director of sales for Johnson Energy Co. “There was always smoke, but I never saw any flames,” Gallin said. “Nothing happened that was anything but proper and above board.”
Gallin was among those caught off-guard last week by the news that Luckie had been indicted on 49 criminal charges, including theft in office, money laundering, election falsification, tampering with records, and tampering with evidence and forgery. The indictment says that over his six years in the Ohio House he stole nearly $130,000 from his campaign account.
If convicted, he could spend years in prison.
“It’s no secret we weren’t friends,” Gallin said of the six years the two served together on the school board. But, she said, Luckie cared about the school district and was an advocate for children.
“He struck me as more of a street politician, whereas I like to think of myself as not a politician at all,” Gallin said in describing their differences.
Jeffrey Mims Jr., Luckie’s former third-grade teacher at Eastmont Elementary School and now a member of the state Board of Education, said the person he knows is nothing like the criminal described in the indictment.
At Eastmont, Mims said, Luckie used to bring in 50 cents for students who couldn’t afford to pay for their activity fees. In adult life, he served as a mentor for the Beautillion program, which teaches young men to be disciplined.
“He was a very caring person,” Mims said. “Over the years I have observed his thoughtfulness and trying to do the right thing for young people. He made me incredibly proud.”
Dayton demolition contractor Steve Rauch, who donated about $10,000 to Luckie’s campaign fund over the years, said he was saddened by the allegations. “This area needs a lot of support, and he was a good person to do it,” Rauch said. “I am sad for his family and for the Democratic Party. He had a nice future, and it might be gone now.”
Drowning in debt
Luckie was a political survivor. He was the only incumbent school board member who wasn’t voted out when the four-member “Kids First” reform ticket swept the school board race in 2001, led by the late Gail Littlejohn.
“He was very charming, and he knew how to work a room,” Gallin said. “People really liked him.”
On Nov. 14, 2006, Luckie was appointed by the Democratic Party to the 39th House District seat vacated when Dixie Allen left her seat to run for county commissioner as a Republican. He handily won re-election in the heavily-Democratic district in 2008 and 2010 with 81 percent of the vote.
He served as Third Vice President of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus — a group co-founded by one of his predecessors, C.J. McLin. In January 2009, he was appointed to the state Controlling Board.
Luckie’s personal life didn’t match the same trajectory as his public life.
He bought a home in Dayton’s Wright-Dunbar District for $151,000 in June, 2005, two months before he married LisaBeth Willis. Their daughter, Kierston, was born in March, 2010 — three months before LisaBeth filed for divorce, citing incompatibility.
The divorce file made it clear that Luckie was drowning in debt. He disclosed that he faced $10,433 in monthly expenses, including $6,685 in monthly debt payments, $1,928 for mortgages and utilities, $1,220 for gasoline and car repairs on his 2005 Cadillac Escalade, $792 for the car payment and $500 for medical and insurance items. In August 2011, the court ordered the state to begin garnishing $331.50 a month from his wages to cover his child support payments.
In the final divorce decree filed in August 2011, Luckie got the houses at 69 Horace St. in Wright-Dunbar Historic District and 8 English Oak in Springboro, the Escalade and half of Lisa Beth’s 401(k) account. The pair split $56,000 in consumer credit card debt: $20,000 for her, $36,000 for him.
Luckie, now 49, also disclosed on his state ethics form that he has a son, Chris Beam, and he owns a third house at 607 E. Lakegren in Eaton.
Luckie soon would have more than just debt problems. In March, he had his first interview with the FBI.
The investigation into Luckie stemmed from an FBI probe into lobbying activities by pay day lenders and W. Carlton Weddington, a Columbus Democrat who pleaded guilty to bribery, elections falsification and ethics charges earlier this year.
FBI investigators found a $300 contribution to Luckie’s campaign account reported by a pay day lending political action committee but not reported by Luckie. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said his auditors first noted that discrepancy and Luckie then amended his report. The FBI’s forensic accountant, though, uncovered evidence of bogus invoices, transfers to Luckie’s personal accounts, ATM withdrawals at casinos in three states and other irregularities, authorities said.
The four misdemeanor counts Luckie is facing have to do with filing inaccurate ethics disclosure statements. Luckie failed to disclose four loans: $4,000 with Union Savings Bank to purchase a jet ski, $3,000 with a Dayton jewelry store, $4,000 with a roofing company, and $5,000 with Frank V. Surico.
Surico is listed as vice president of Johnson Energy Co., a dealer in coal, limestone and other fuels. The company has employed Luckie since at least 2005, according to state ethics statements, and lists him as the director of sales on its website. But the job hasn’t paid much. Luckie said on his ethics statements that he earned between $1,000 and $10,000 a year from Johnson Energy in six of the last seven years and in 2008 he said he made between $10,000 and $25,000 at the job.
Surico wrote a $625 check to the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus in 2011 to support its annual golf outing, but Luckie deposited the check into his own bank account, according to the indictment.
Tony Bledsoe, director of Ohio’s Joint Legislative Ethics Commission, said he’s troubled by the Weddington and Luckie cases, but he doesn’t believe there are widespread abuses at the Statehouse.
“There is always a concern about any potential violation of the public trust,” he said. “But with 132 legislators, there will probably be a couple of folks who step outside the boundaries of what is appropriate or what is legal. These are isolated incidents, but we need to know how we can improve our oversight.”
Bledsoe said the FBI has voiced no concern over Luckie’s role on the state Controlling Board. “One of the checks and balances is the state checking account,” he said.
Fundamental trust violated
Dayton City Commissioner Nan Whaley said the allegations are baffling, considering how hard it is for candidates to raise even the smallest amount of money. “These dollars are really precious,” Whaley said. “It’s not easy to raise money, and it’s something we don’t like as part of the job. If these charges are true, it’s really strange. Why would you do that?”
Whaley praises Luckie for stepping aside in time for the Democrats to place another candidate, longtime Dayton politician Fred Strahorn, on the ballot. “It’s a relief that we are moving on with a good candidate,” she said. “I give Clayton credit for that. He did have the community on his mind.”
Derrick Foward, president of the Dayton chapter of the NAACP, said the NAACP is not involved with the case. But Foward, who grew up with Luckie, said, “We are praying for him and his family. We will be very careful about making statements until all the facts are known.”
He added, “If he feels he is unjustly treated, the NAACP is here for him.”
Foward said that Luckie was known in his youth as an respected middle-class teen who loved basketball, swimming and dances at the West Area YMCA. “It’s a great loss to the community,” he said. “He was an upstanding citizen.”
Husted, however, said on Friday that he was not surprised by the indictment. “I really don’t want to expand on that publicly,” said the former House speaker who has known Luckie since the 1990s.
Husted said he will ask the General Assembly next year to work on reforming the campaign finance reporting system. One change he supports: requiring campaigns to disclose bank account information so that auditors can verify expenditures and contributions if necessary. He said also Ohio needs to update its laws for more timely disclosure of campaign contributions and beef up enforcement.
“Not only do we need a reform in campaign finance on the auditing side, but also on the enforcement side,” Husted said. “(Franklin County Prosecutor) Ron O’Brien did a really good job because it got to the prosecutors through the law enforcement side.”
Usually campaign finance complaints go through the bipartisan Ohio Elections Commission, Husted said, which can take months or even years to resolve cases.
Former Cuyahoga County sheriff Gerald McFaul, a Democrat, stole money from his campaign fund and forced employees to work on his political events. He struck a plea deal with prosecutors in 2010 that included $130,000 in restitution.
Husted said the Elections Commission ruled that McFaul could use his campaign funds to pay the restitution. Husted has asked for a re-hearing on the matter, he said.
“If you get caught doing something wrong and the penalty is pay the money back, that’s not much of a penalty,” he said.
Husted said Luckie is eligible to pay his attorney fees out of his campaign fund because the accusations are related to his activities as a candidate and an officeholder.
Whaley said that if the allegations are true, Luckie violated the fundamental trust between donor and politician.
“I would be really upset if I had ever given Clayton any money,” she said. “There is a code that if you’re donating money, it’s for the campaign.”
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