The Columbus Dispatch

Prosecutor disagrees with judge, says county is still owed money

Friday, January 9, 2004
NEWS   01A

By Tim Doulin and Kevin Mayhood

Illustration: Photo

Jesse D. Oddi Jr. walked out of prison yesterday after having served more than five years for stealing nearly a half-million dollars while he was a public official.

A Franklin County judge released Oddi 11 months early from his six-year sentence, saying he has paid his debt to society.

But two insurance companies say they may soon be asking Oddi to pay his debt to them for money they reimbursed the county to help cover his thefts.

Oddi, 54, pleaded guilty to racketeering, theft-in-office, forgery and other charges in 1998. He admitted stealing $448,000 over a 13-year period while he was the clerk and deputy clerk for Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

He left the Downtown county jail yesterday, where he'd been transferred to this week from the Madison Correctional Institution.

As he walked out, Oddi told reporters: "I'm sorry. I'm sorry to the people of Franklin County. They're the ones I betrayed.''

Oddi pleaded guilty to a total of 49 criminal charges in 1998. He admitted taking traffic fines and creating false receipts to cover his tracks for nine years as a deputy clerk and another four years as the clerk of courts.

Hours before his release from jail yesterday, Oddi appeared in front of Common Pleas Judge John A. Connor, who granted his request for early release and placed him on five years of probation.

Connor said a prison report described Oddi as a model inmate. The judge noted that the county has been reimbursed for all money Oddi took.

"Continued incarceration of this defendant would inhibit the rehabilitation process,'' Connor said.

The judge's decision came over the objections of county Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, who said the early release sends the wrong message to other elected officials and public employees.

Connor disagreed, saying: "The five-year, one-month sentence plus the substantial restitution that the defendant has already made is a sufficient deterrent and warning to others who may be tempted to commit the same or similar crimes.''

O'Brien argued that Oddi had not been responsible for the full restitution. Though the county was repaid the full $448,000, only $308,000 came from Oddi and his family -- largely through the sale of their Grandview Heights home.

The county recouped the balance by collecting from two bonding companies that insure public officials.

O'Brien argued that Oddi still owes the county $140,000, which, if paid, would be turned over to the insurance companies.

He said Oddi has at least $140,000 in the Public Employees Retirement System. "I'm not asking him to do something that can't be accomplished.''

But Connor said restitution has been made to the county and the court can't order Oddi to pay the bonding companies the $140,000.

"However, the bonding companies may certainly pursue any civil remedies it has against the defendant,'' Connor said.

Spokespeople for the two bonding companies -- CMA Surety and Fidelity & Deposit Company of Maryland -- said they typically pursue money in such cases.

Oddi, who is forever barred from holding public office, must obtain and keep a job as part of his probation.

He also must perform 200 hours of community service each year for the next five years, preferably working with troubled youths, Connor said. Oddi won't be allowed to leave Franklin County without permission from his probation officer and the court this year.

As she left court yesterday, Oddi's wife, Elaine, a longtime county employee who owns a house in Gahanna, said the family is "very, very relieved and happy.''

She also said her husband has to make amends with the community, his family and others.

Oddi was caught in 1998 when county employees blew the whistle on him. A surveillance camera placed in his office by state investigators showed Oddi stuffing cash from traffic fines into his pockets.

"I would encourage anybody else out there, especially those in public service, if they see something wrong happening, there are avenues out there where you can report them,'' said Deputy Clerk Emily Shaw, who was instrumental in uncovering the thefts.

Oddi faced more than 70 years in prison for the offenses. At the time of sentencing, O'Brien requested 10 years and Connor made it six.

As he left the county jail yesterday, Oddi said he was glad to be going home to his family. He has three adult children.

When asked what he'd do when he got home, Oddi said, "Kiss my wife and kiss my kids.''

Jesse D. Oddi Jr., right, was released from prison yesterday after Common Pleas Judge John A. Connor said he had paid his debt to society. Oddi's attorney, Bill Meeks, is at left.

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