The Long, Hard Fall Of Donald 'Buz' Lukens

Jun 7, 2019

In five decades of covering politics, I have never seen a politician fall as hard and as far as Donald "Buz" Lukens.

Lukens, the Warren County native who died alone and nearly forgotten in Dallas, Texas, nine years ago, was thought of early in his career in the 1960s as a young Ohio Republican whose career was going places. He would, many in the party believed, be Ohio's governor some day. Maybe even president.

It was all political-posturing by an incredibly ambitious man.

As it turned out, nearly everything about the former congressman and state senator was a fraud. Even his nickname, "Buz," was a name he had given himself because he didn't like "Donald" and needed a catchy politician's handle to sell himself to voters. And he certainly wasn't going to use his real middle name, "Edgar."

After about a quarter of a century in politics, his career and his life had collapsed in a heap of disgrace, leaving him alone and abandoned after one personal scandal after another, all of them brought upon himself and all of which he tried to blame on someone else.

Watching his downfall play itself out was a pathetic scene.

In the 1960s, he became a political acolyte for then-California governor Ronald Reagan and one of Reagan's young Republican leaders in the burgeoning conservative movement. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1966 at the age of 35, mainly for his hawkishness on the Vietnam War.

He spent four years in the House before deciding in 1970 to run for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. It was a case of Lukens allowing his ego to get the better of him, assuming that as the leader of Ohio's "young Republicans" (he was nearly 40 at the time), that no one could take the nomination away from him.

But former state auditor Roger Cloud believed he could, and he did just that, defeating Lukens in the GOP primary. Cloud then went on to lose to Democrat John J. Gilligan in the fall.

Lukens still had some pull in the Ohio GOP and was appointed to a vacant state senate seat, one that he would hold through 1986.

He was not your typical obscure state senator, involved with national conservative figures such as Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich and Barry Goldwater.

Then, in 1986, something inexplicable happened.

U.S. Rep. Tom Kindness, who represented Butler and Warren counties in Congress, decided to give up a safe seat in the House to take on John Glenn, a national icon and a Democratic senator from Ohio. Kindness had no chance.

But Lukens was ready to jump into the fray, even though he already carried some baggage from his first stint in Congress, such as the cash gifts from Tongsun Park, a South Korean businessman who was indicted for bribing members of Congress.

Lukens wanted badly to return to Congress. His 10-year marriage to Toshika Davis, a model 21 years his junior, had ended in divorce a few years before and he was beginning to show signs of the throat cancer that eventually would take his life.

I was the Cincinnati Enquirer's politics writer and I had had an up-and-down relationship with Lukens over the years – mostly down.

Someone had suggested to Lukens that it might be a good idea if he made peace with me, since I would be covering his campaign.

He called one day and asked me to meet him for lunch in the restaurant of a now-gone Holiday Inn just outside of Middletown.

We sat a a table for two and he tried to lay out the "ground rules" for our talk.

I'm not going to talk about so-called scandals or any of that crap, Lukens said to me.

I told him that I couldn't promise him that; all of those things are relevant if you are running for Congress again. Nothing is off limits.

We went back and forth on this point for a few minutes. He began getting red in the face. He was about to explode.

Suddenly, he jumped up from the table, very loudly suggesting that I was the offspring of a female dog and then he flipped the table over, with plates and water glasses and everything flying all over the dining room.

He stormed out of the restaurant, still yelling invective at me.

Once he was gone, I was sitting in the middle of the restaurant, with every other diner staring at me. It was dead quiet.

I tried to smile at all the folks, but there was only one thing I could say:

Check, please!

So much for that rapprochement.

Lukens won the election, but it was not long before he was in hot water again.

In February 1989, a local TV station caught Lukens on camera at a McDonald's restaurant in Columbus, talking with Anna Coffman, the mother of Rosie Coffman, a teenaged girl. They were talking about Lukens' sexual relations with Rosie.

It wasn't long before the congressman was indicted on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. It was alleged that Lukens gave the girl $40 and gifts for sex when she was 16. The grand jury was also told that Lukens had sex with Rosie Coffman when she was 13, but the grand jury declined to press further charges.

I covered the trial in Franklin County Juvenile Court during the last week of June 1989. I was staying in a downtown Columbus hotel and I had a really bad case of the flu. For the entire week, I ate nothing but room service French onion soup.

My days were taken up listening to testimony from everyone involved, including Rosie Coffman, who repeated in very graphic detail what happened in Lukens' Columbus apartment on the night of Nov. 6, 1988.

And, so, I wrote a story that was very graphic. I filed my story and I began getting pushback from the managing editor at the time, who argued that this level of detail was not proper for a morning, family newspaper.

I argued that it was, because the good people of Ohio's 4th Congressional District deserved to know just what their congressman was up to in his spare time. And I argued that neither Lukens nor his lawyer said anything to refute Rosie Coffman in court. Lukens never testified.

But I ended up losing that argument. The story was toned down a bit.

In the end, it didn't matter.

On June 30, a jury of four men and four women deliberated for an hour and 27 minutes before convicting Lukens on the misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and contributing to the unruliness of a minor.

The judges set aside the first conviction but upheld the second, giving Lukens the maximum sentence of 180 days and a fine of $1,000. He suspended all but 30 days of the jail sentence and ordered Lukens to attend sex offender classes and be tested for venereal diseases.

The judge, in his sentencing, called Lukens "a man with no remorse whatsoever."

Almost every Ohio Republican leader was clamoring for Lukens to resign, but he refused.

On Oct. 23, 1990, the House Ethics Committee voted to investigate charges that Lukens had fondled and propositioned a Capitol elevator operator.

Lukens resigned from the House the next day.

But the legal system was not yet through with him.

In 1995, the task force investigating the House banking scandal charged Lukens with five counts of bribery and conspiracy, including taking a bribe of $15,000. After a second trial in 1996, Lukens was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

As all of this was going on, Lukens had several operations for throat cancer – he blamed it on being around too many smokers over the years.

His voice turned raspy; he had no saliva glands.

When he spoke, he had to stop about every 30 seconds to drink water, because he could no longer produce saliva.

After his term in federal prison, he stayed in Dallas, living in a small apartment, a mostly forgotten figure, until his death on May 22, 2010 at the age of 79.

A sad case, indeed, but one with no one to blame but himself.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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