The Columbus Dispatch


Friday, April 25, 2003
NEWS   01A

By Mary Beth Lane

Illustration: Photo

Fairfield County Municipal Judge Don S. McAuliffe will try to get out of jail on bail today after his indictment yesterday on federal charges that he conspired to burn down his lakefront home in Millersport to collect insurance money.

The indictment of the 58-year-old judge came with him running in the May 6 Republican primary as the party-endorsed candidate for a second full term.

Flanked by his lawyers, a somber McAuliffe appeared before U.S. Magistrate Mark Abel dressed casually in slacks, windbreaker and boat shoes before being led away in handcuffs to the Franklin County jail.

Abel ordered McAuliffe held pending a detention hearing scheduled for this afternoon. Assistant U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said he will argue at the hearing that McAuliffe should be held without bail because he is a flight risk and has threatened witnesses.

McAuliffe's lawyers, Bill Meeks and Sam Shamansky, said he will plead not guilty at an arraignment expected within the next two weeks.

The judge, Pickerington's law director before being seated on the Fairfield County bench six years ago, was taken into custody by authorities outside his lawyers' S. High Street office after a grand jury returned a seven-count indictment against him.

McAuliffe is charged with two counts of mail fraud, one count of using fire to commit a felony, one count of conspiracy, and two counts of money laundering.

An additional forfeiture count seeks cash, real estate and a Jeep representing proceeds of the crimes, according to the indictment.

The indictment charges that McAuliffe conspired with another person to burn down his home on Buckeye Lake, at 3765 North Bank Rd. in Millersport, in March 2002 to collect insurance money. Authorities did not identify the second person.

Specifically, the indictment charges:

* On Feb. 22 last year, McAuliffe increased insurance coverage on the house from $124,959 to $204,368 and, five days later, told someone to remove family photographs, antiques and other belongings from the home. He then caused a natural-gas-line break in an unsuccessful attempt to start a fire.

* Between March 2 and March 8, McAuliffe and someone else placed a halogen lamp against a wall of the house and started a fire.

* On April 11, McAuliffe submitted a claim of $361,925 to Grange Insurance Co. When the company rejected it, he mailed another claim, for $235,000, on April 22 and later received a check.

* He used the money to pay off a $143,834 mortgage on the burned-down house, purchase another home at 13580 Hollywood Blvd. in Millersport for $67,325, and buy a 1997 Jeep Wrangler.

Conviction on the two most serious charges carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.

The two-story house perched on Buckeye Lake, 25 miles east of Columbus, was a total loss. Firefighters who responded called the fire suspicious and asked the Fairfield County Sheriff's Office to investigate. Eventually, federal and state agents took over the investigation.

McAuliffe bought the North Bank Road house for $240,000 in July 2001, according to county auditor's records.

The charges against McAuliffe are certain to have an effect on Republican politics in Fairfield County.

McAuliffe, appointed to the municipal court in 1997 and elected that year to a full term, faces a primary challenge from county Administrator Pat Harris.

Harris, a former assistant city and assistant county prosecutor, is making his first run for elective office. He declined to comment on the indictment.

County GOP Chairman Brian Fox had tried to dissuade Harris from challenging the incumbent.

Fox said last night that the executive committee will meet May 1. "It's a very good possibility the executive committee would endorse Pat Harris,'' he said.

"For all intents and purposes, the election is over. It would be very difficult for the candidate (McAuliffe) to carry on after this. He could withdraw. That would be my suggestion.''

He voiced no regrets about the endorsement of McAuliffe.

"I believe that Judge McAuliffe has been an excellent judge, and I believe he's innocent.''

Previously, McAuliffe denied an allegation by his ex-wife, Jane, that he choked her during an argument in 1999, before their divorce.

A special prosecutor hired in 2001 by the city prosecutor to examine the allegation concluded it was moot because a two-year statute of limitations had expired.

City officials paid S. Michael Miller, a former Franklin County prosecutor, $1,491 to investigate the domestic-violence allegation -- the second time taxpayers paid for a probe involving the judge.

In 1999, J. Craig Wright, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, was paid about $10,000 in city and county money for a report that documented an affair between McAuliffe and his court's probation officer.

This month, McAuliffe told The Dispatch: "I've done a good job. But for these -- for lack of a better word -- distractions, I don't think anyone would be running against me.''

He denied wrongdoing. "If arson was committed on the property, I certainly want to find out who committed it.''

Fairfield County Municipal Judge Don S. McAuliffe is being held in the Franklin County jail.

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