Robert J. Fitrakis isn't the first person to accuse Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro of "political payback" and he probably won't be the last. Political payback appears to be the Petro's -- and the Ohio Republican Party's -- way of doing business.

Fitrakis made his "political payback" accusation on January 18 after Petro asked the Republican-dominated Ohio Supreme Court to sanction Fitrakis and three other lawyers who challenged the state's presidential election results in the Ohio Supreme Court on behalf of Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the suit's principal target as Ohio's chief elections official.

Jefferson County Prosecutor Stephen M. Stern accused Petro of the same thing when he was state auditor in a October 19, 1997, story in The Columbus Dispatch headlined, "Probe seen as political payback."  

The story said Stern wasn't surprised when a special investigator from the state auditor's office showed up at his office earlier that year.

"Stern, a Democrat, figures a two-month probe of his office by Republican Auditor Jim Petro is the price he must pay for taking on Paul V. Voinovich, brother of Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich," The Dispatch reported. 

Petro said it was just a coincidence that his department started auditing Stern's office while Stern was investigating a disastrous county-jail project in Steubenville in which a company owned by Paul Voinovich was the general contractor.

The Dispatch said Petro's investigation was sparked by an anonymous letter, apparently from two employees recently fired by Stern.

Petro said fast action on such complaints are common. But The Dispatch reported that one of Petro's own employees questioned why the Stern probe was taking place. After receiving an order to do a ''preliminary inquiry'' of Stern, investigator Alan Bonham wrote a confidential email to his supervisor noting that, "This is an anonymous complaint, which I thought we refused to investigate. Compound that with the witnesses being disgruntled employees, I don't get a warm fuzzy feeling.''

Petro's probe turned up nothing on Stern then, but GOP-controlled agencies continue to pursue the now-disabled former prosecutor, who currently lives in Florida, every way it can.

Stern's success perhaps explains why. His investigation won the conviction of an alleged Voinovich front man for attempted bribery. A subsequent civil finding against the late Paul Voinovich's company forced it into bankruptcy. Stern said both investigations were hampered by delayed audit reports from Petro's office, as was one of the North Ohio Valley Air Authority, in which more dirt on Paul Voinovich's company was uncovered. Stern eventually had to secure a grand-jury subpoena to pry the NOVAA audit information from out of Petro's paws.

The lawyers who joined Fitrakis in the election suit -- Clifford O. Arnebeck,  Susan Truitt and Peter Peckarsky -- never had a chance to gather the kind of information Stern was able to get. They said Petro's office stonewalled them at every turn before they asked to withdraw both their cases when President Bush's inauguration seemed inevitable.

Petro's minions are often slow to release public records. Last summer, it took the threat of legal action to get them to turn over records I had requested involving the attorney general's 2001 investigation of a complaint that a Mansfield counseling agency was billing two government agencies for the same work. When the crucial records were finally turned over, they revealed that the attorney general's office -- then under the control of Betty Montgomery -- had concluded that the allegation of a double-billing scam involving state Medicaid money was unfounded after it reviewed the records of only one of the two agencies purportedly being bilked.

Now that Montgomery is state auditor, she is pushing for more powers to stop the same kind of Medicaid fraud her office failed to aggressively investigate when she was attorney general. Stonewall Petro, meanwhile, is publicly advocating greater access to public records in his role as attorney general while withholding them when it doesn't suit his needs. And Blackwell is promising fairer, smoother-run elections.

All three Republicans also are running for governor. If Jerry Springer decides to become a Democratic candidate for the same office, he should have Montgomery, Petro and Blackwell on his rowdy TV show before it goes off the air. The duplicity, insults, personal attacks and hypocrisy that might surface could result in the show's best donnybrook and highest ratings  ever. Perhaps Springer could have George Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, give play-by-play analysis based on his own expertise in dirty politics.

Columbus author Martin Yant's most recent book is Rotten to the Core 2: Crime, Sex and Corruption in Johnny Appleseed's Hometown.