The stench of a political tyrant is spreading beyond the state legislature in Columbus, Ohio, these days. But then, House Speaker, Vernal G. Riffe Jr., hasn’t cared how he smells for nearly two decades; he only cares how he rules.
Riffe owns an insurance agency in the small southern Ohio town of New Boston. But he spends his time in Columbus where he is now the most feared politician and the most successful special interest fundraiser in Ohio politics.
You have to see it to believe it. Sitting in a restaurant near the Capitol recently with some state legislators, I observed them speaking in near-whispers when they criticized Vernal Riffe. “He is very vengeful,” confided one lawmaker, adding “Verne doesn’t think I’m a team player.”
Verne spells “team player” as “rubber stamp.” Last January he took committee chairmanships from three House Democrats because they voted against bills to weaken the rights of injured workers and consumers. Now he wants to defeat Rep. June Lucas (D-Youngstown) who declined to tow his line on anti-injured persons’ legislation sponsored by the insurance industry and their corporate allies. He’s dropped her name from his campaign kitty and is supporting a primary opponent. He even took away her secretary and a staff aide.
“I don’t appreciate it when a member goes into meetings criticizing me” Riffe told a reporter. “People forget it’s a two-way street down here.” Lucas says she has to vote her conscience and not Riffe’s insurance-indentured demands.
While testifying against legislation which’ would allow manufacturers of dangerous products to escape adequate responsibility to compensate their victims, I observed Riffe’s power at work through one of henchmen, Hike Stinziano, chairman of the Insurance Committee. Stinziano showed no interest in facts that went against the Riffe party line. He was just going through the motions of a hearing in order to report the bill to the House floor.
“Year after year, Riffe holds his notorious birthday party campaign-fundraisers. He has these “birthday parties” more than once a year.. The lobbyists fall all over themselves to attend and donate. He has raised millions of dollars which he allocates to this flock in the House to keep them in line. His control is so total that for years Riffe was treated as a “given” by the media which did riot cover or investigate him.
When a political writer, Bertrand DeSouza, wrote some recent articles critical of Riffe for the Youngstown Vindicator, Riffe contacted one of the paper’s executives to indicate his displeasure over DeSouza’s. tenure at the paper.
Riffe has ambitions to become Governor in 1990. Last month, one of_ his “birthday” fundraisers brought in over $600,000. The press doesn’t seem to be too active in looking for these “two-way streets” regarding what Riffe is giving back to the lobbies for these slush funds.
Political tyrants in state legislatures deserve more attention. Reporters become too complacent and adopt a “so what else is new” attitude as an excuse for not digging into the skeleton closets of these
There is one assurance for Vernal Riffe to contemplate before he decides to inflict himself on Ohio citizens by entering the race for Governor. Ohio citizen groups have pledged that the skeletons will start coming out of the closet and the results of his venal legislative record against Defenseless Ohioans will greet him on the campaign trail. Riffe won’t be able to buy his way out of that one.