The Columbus Dispatch

Ex-clerk of courts won't say what he did with stolen cash

Saturday, January 10, 2004
NEWS   01A

By Tim Doulin and Kevin Mayhood

Illustration: Photo

Jesse D. Oddi Jr. doesn't hesitate to accept responsibility for stealing about $448,000 from Franklin County coffers.

But a day after being released from prison, the former common pleas clerk of courts won't reveal where the money went or why he did it.

"Whatever I do or say, people seeing it or reading it will say, 'There's that S.O.B. making an excuse,' '' Oddi, 54, said during an interview in his attorneys' Downtown office yesterday.

"And that's all it would be. And I have no excuse.''

Oddi was sentenced to six years in prison in 1998 after pleading guilty to 49 criminal charges that included theft in office, racketeering and forgery.

Oddi, who worked in the clerk's office 25 years before becoming clerk of courts in 1995, skimmed money from traffic-fine collections for 13 years.

A lingering question: What did Oddi do with the money?

State investigators don't think he hid it. They say Oddi lived a richer lifestyle than his salary could support.

"He joined Riviera Country Club and played a lot of golf; he drove a Lexus; and he was making payments of $200 to $300 a month in car repairs for his (three) kids' cars and his wife's car,'' said Steven Schierholt, deputy superintendent of investigations at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigations.

Oddi didn't dispute the investigators' theory, but also wouldn't elaborate.

"They did the investigation,'' Oddi said. "They know.''

When he became clerk of courts, Oddi took a pay cut, receiving an annual salary set by law of $58,590. That was down from the $67,558 he made as deputy clerk.

Oddi served five years and a month in prison. County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien objected to Common Pleas Judge John A. Connor's decision Wednesday to release Oddi from prison 11 months early, saying it sends the wrong message to other elected officials and public employees.

"I think you concentrate on the five-plus years that I did do in prison,'' Oddi said. "That's the message.''

On his first full day of freedom, Oddi went to church in the morning with his sister, visited the graves of his parents and for the first time toured the Arena District.

During his stay in prison, Oddi became a grandfather. Then a second grandchild was born and a third is on the way, he said.

The grandchildren, as well as other family members, visited him regularly at the Madison Correctional Institution.

Most days in prison, he said, he'd look forward to someday being released; other days, he couldn't fathom that he'd ever leave.

"I've never had a sense of loss like that in my life,'' he said.

Family was key to getting through.

"Even when I slipped into that notion of what a terrible, terrible mess I made of their lives, my life -- everything that I touched -- they reassured me that I was still a father, their father, still a husband and still a brother to them,'' Oddi said.

Oddi was a minimum-security inmate who lived in a dormitory at the London facility. He shared a cubicle with another inmate his first year in prison.

The past four years, Oddi was an honors inmate, earning his own cubicle and the right to perform tasks outside the prison fence.

Oddi emerged from prison looking fit. He said he walked 4 miles a day on the inside.

Oddi also counseled juveniles in trouble with the law in hopes of turning them away from crime. He shared with them how he chose to steal, ended up in prison and hurt loved ones.

Oddi regrets humiliating his family. His wife, Elaine, is a clerk in Franklin County Probate Court, housed in the same courthouse complex where he committed his crimes.

"For my wife to go back a few days after this mess that I made, to go to work and walk in that building and go back every single day,'' he said. "She is the most courageous person that God has ever put on this Earth.''

Oddi also regrets hurting others, especially his predecessor as clerk of courts, Thomas J. Enright.

"I let him down,'' Oddi said. "I will always feel bad about that. He was the most honorable man I ever knew.''

Oddi said he has not spoken to Enright since his arrest. Yesterday, Enright said he isn't interested in speaking to Oddi.

"I'm probably as devastated now as I was the day I heard what had happened because I did promote him and I did trust him,'' Enright said of Oddi.

Franklin County Auditor Joe Testa said: "Every time a public official does something so serious, that involves so much money stolen over such a long period of time, it violates the public's trust in all of us.''

Testa is frustrated that the General Assembly has failed to tighten accounting practices aimed at preventing such thefts.

Oddi must find a job as a condition of probation. He says he is capable of doing many things but isn't sure how difficult the job search will be.

"I don't think I'm gonna go work at a bank,'' he quipped.

Oddi said he will have to live with his past.

"And that's OK. It may always need to be there.''

Jesse D. Oddi Jr. said his family kept him strong during the five years he spent in prison.

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