EXCLUSIVE: Michael Fox talks about ‘humbling’ prison experience

Michael Fox would be running for Congress if he hadn’t accepted a plea deal that sent him to federal prison four years ago.

He said he likely would be the favorite as he’s always had “a unique relationship with voters.”

But instead of a congressional bid, today, on Fox’s 67th birthday, he signs documents making him a free man of sorts. Today, Fox, a politically defeated man, starts probation, which is scheduled for three years.

Fox pleaded guilty in March 2011 to two felony counts in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati: conspiracy to commit wire fraud and filing a false tax return. In exchange for a plea, the federal government agreed to a four-year sentence instead of two decades. None of the corruption charges alleged in the indictment, which includes bribes and kickbacks, were included in the plea agreement.

“It was humbling more than anything,” Fox exclusively told the Journal-News from his Oxford home, the day before he was set to sign documents releasing him from home confinement. “You walk through those doors having mattered in life to a world in which you’re nothing.”

ExploreFox served the remaining months of his sentence on home confinement after being released last summer from the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Ky.

During his time in prison, Fox said he understands why the recidivism rate in the country is so high.

“It’s a criminal factory,” said Fox. “It creates criminals.”

The National Institute of Justice cites a 76.6 percent re-arrest rate within five years when prisoners are released.

Fox said that prison is similar to the military, saying it is designed to break a person down. But unlike the military, which rebuilds men and women into soldiers, prison just leaves prisoners broken with no ability or incentive to reform. And the support system for those ex-cons is nil as they often burned bridges with family members, Fox said.

Fox said he realizes the result of his incarceration “was a result of my strengths and weaknesses” — his political acumen, his political ego and his poor personal financial management — which collided “in a horrible crash.”

Fox was indicted in 2009 for improperly benefiting from a $2.75 million contract with the fiber optics firm NORMAP — owned by co-defendant and longtime friend Robert Schuler — to build the county's fiber optics network.

When NORMAP failed, and attempts to reach out to other, more established telecommunications companies also failed, the county turned to Dynus Corp.

The charges Fox admitted to came to light following an FBI investigation into whether the Dynus Corp. took out millions of dollars in loans in the county’s name without its approval for the operation of a fiber-optics system.

The investigation into the company also led to the convictions of former Dynus executives, former county Auditor Kay Rogers and eventually Fox.

Fox admitted guilt to criminal charges, but did not plead to any corruption charges — specifically accepting bribes and kickbacks — originally pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The Hamilton native was sentenced to a four-year prison term in March 2012 for conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and filing a false tax return.

He still maintains his innocence, saying the federal investigation only found things that occurred prior to the county’s relationship with NORMAP.

Fox, the longest serving state lawmaker in Butler County history, was first elected to state office in 1974 at age 24. He served 23 years before leaving under scandal for accepting airline tickets and lodging from a lobbyist.

Known as someone always pushing the envelope, Fox continued to push when he came back to Butler County to serve as a commissioner in 1997.

He is credited with countless projects that he spearheaded during his time as an elected county and state leader, including founding the county transportation improvement district, which led the construction of Ohio 129 connecting Hamilton and Interstate 75, as well as the construction of the county government services center and the new jail.

He ended his career as director of Butler County Children’s Services.

Fox viewed the work he dedicated his entire life to, work he now no longer can do as a political pariah, as “important work.” And that was often at the expense of spending time with family and friends.

But he’s traded, albeit by force, “living for the future” or the next project for taking time for “the now.”

“I regret the time that I cheated my family out of,” Fox said.

Though he was forced to slow down when he went to prison, he enjoys the slow-pace life that he never appreciated in the decades of serving the public. He’s been able to work on a book from an insider’s perspective on government “and how it really works.”

“Most people believe that government doesn’t work, but they’re wrong,” he said. “The problem is it doesn’t work for them, the regular Joes.”

Anywhere from nine to a dozen times a day since being released to home confinement, Fox said he receives phone calls from a case manager to ensure he is where he’s supposed to be. If he fails to answer the call, even if it’s in the middle of the night, he can be sent to a half-way house or back to Lexington, he said.

Being in prison has changed Fox, both physically and emotionally.

Fox lost 100 pounds while in prison, as he would regularly walk on a treadmill or use an elliptical machine. But a back injury caused him to regain 4o pounds because he couldn’t work out.

He also became 100 percent deaf in his left ear. He said it took him several weeks to seek a specialist after initial complaints of an ear infection.

Fox is thankful that his mother, who is 87 years old, remained healthy during his incarceration, he said.

“My biggest fear was if something happened to my mother and I’d never be able to see her again,” he said.

He’s also gained a renewed appreciation for his friends and family, especially a pair of twin granddaughters — Avery and Taylor, 5 — who were 18 months old when he went to prison, and his newest granddaughter Harper, who was born a few months before he was released to home incarceration.

He calls those three girls “the joy of my life” and enjoys being called “grandpa.”

“I’m a rich man,” he said.

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