Cynics say politicians don't really make anything. But that's not true. They make mistakes. They make vast amounts of other people's money disappear. And they make enemies.

Butler County politician Mike Fox has done all three in spectacular style.

His mistakes are seldom picayune. In 1997 he was caught taking freebies from a lobbyist and was censured by his peers in the Ohio General Assembly, something seen in Ohio about as often as Halley's Comet. As a Butler County commissioner, his own Republican Party targeted him for defeat, and his name was stripped from the Michael A. Fox Highway, now Veterans Highway.

He made millions of taxpayer dollars disappear. He made enemies like a Hatfield in a county full of McCoys. And both played large in his biggest mistake. On March 9, a month before his trial in federal court on eight counts of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion, Fox surrendered and pleaded guilty.

Fox admitted to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and filing a false tax return. "With regret, guilty," he answered as the judge read the charges. He agreed to a proposed sentence of four years without parole, saying the alternative was 12 to 20 years if convicted by a jury. "I've had all the problems with the law I'd like to have in my lifetime," he said.

According to the FBI, Fox solicited more than $536,000 from county contractors, including a landscaper and a transportation company "” but most of it, $460,000, came from his longtime buddy, Dublin attorney Robert Schuler, who also was indicted and pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return. Schuler accepted a likely sentence of 1 year to 18 months.

The facts they admitted showed crude corruption more common in Chicago than Southwest Ohio. Even people who have known Fox for years, who often cringed as he stretched the outer limits of the ethics envelope, were surprised.

And in Butler County, where politics is dog fighting by other means, the hounds were baying. The Fox hunt was on, and his enemies couldn't wait to see him finally cornered.

Once upon a time, Fox was a political prodigy with a career so promising he talked of becoming governor of Ohio. He was a favorite son of Hamilton who once ran Dixie Hamburgers with his dad and became president of the Miami University College Republican Club. His résumé listed experience as a teacher, sheriff's deputy, state representative, county commissioner, director of children's services and an award as Legislator of the Year.

He has always been one of those rare public officials with a wide-screen vision. While most politicians see only as far as the next election, Fox had a telephoto view like a snapshot from Google Earth. And he could express it in lyrical sound bites that made him a favorite among the press.

I've known Fox for years. Like other reporters, I've gone on the Mike Fox ride-along, which is a rambling guided tour of the political landscape, seasoned with one-liners and light-bulb flashes of insight. He always seemed to be an extra-large guy with a XXL heart in the right place "” often for children "” whose big ideas also made him an easy target.

But his guilty plea shows another side: He also had an oversized appetite for contributions to his favorite charity "” Mike Fox.

What is known as the Dynus scandal that fumigated Butler County actually started as something called Normap in late 2000. Fox had a vision for a fiber-optics grid that would make Butler County a state leader in telecommunications, with jobs, economic development and huge county revenues from a network that delivered high-speed internet, phone and cable TV.

From the start, it was Fox's hands-on project, wired with conflicts and abuse of public trust. When the county asked for bids, Fox was behind the scenes boosting Normap, a Toledo company that was a rookie compared to bidders such as Cinergy and Time Warner. Records show that Normap was incorporated just a week before bids were due on Sept. 19, 2000. So the bid deadline was extended for Normap, and surprise, they won, pledging to spend $4.8 million to the county's $2 million.

Instead, before any work was completed, the county wrote a $1.37-million check to Normap, which never came through with its promised $4.8 million. By 2002, Normap had to hire Cincinnati Bell to do the work, and stuck Butler County with the $500,000 bill. Normap fizzled.

So Fox encouraged a new buyer to take over Normap, the FBI says. Schuler bought Normap for $400,000 and renamed it Anwalt.

If things worked out, Schuler and Fox could have made tens of millions of dollars by bundling cable, internet and phone service on fiber-optic lines to every home and business, using a network installed and maintained by county taxpayers.

The first red flag went up in late 2002, when a consultant tested the fiber-optics system and found 70 percent failure rates. The Kimball report said the network was "not acceptable" for public use. But at the urging of Fox, the county ignored the warning and continued to pump millions into the plan, issuing bonds and writing checks. According to the FBI, about $1.8 million of Butler County taxpayer money was paid to Schuler, who used a middleman to give $460,000 to Fox.

At the time, Fox "was in dire financial straits," the FBI found, and the first $360,000 of the alleged "bribe/kickback" was wired directly to Fox's bank account to pay off a $300,000 debt he owed.

That might have gone undiscovered if Fox had not picked a fight with domestic relations judges over travel expenses. They pulled public records and found he was extravagantly under-reporting his own expenses. And they also discovered the first threads that unraveled the Normap-Dynus scandal.

Fox responded to the judges with a 678-page rant, "A Culture of Secrecy, Fear and Judicial Abuse." It was a classic Mike Fox cloud of ink, accusing the judges of corruption and cruel indifference to children. But it only made the judges more determined to fish through Fox's records. Eventually, they netted e-mails in which a consulting report was apparently being rigged to exaggerate the benefits of fiber optics.

When other county commissioners got wind of that, the fiber-optics money train was derailed. In dueling op-eds in 2004, Fox lobbied hard for more spending, accusing the other commissioners of "missing the boat" on the county's future. But Commissioner Greg Jolivette said Fox was in a "frantic rush" to gamble county cash on technology that could wind up as the "eight-track tapes" of telecommunications. He warned that fiber optics could lose to wireless.

Stymied, Fox vowed to "find a way around it." And Dynus was born. Unable to get more public spending, Fox switched horses to another hustler who came to Butler County with big promises, Orlando Carter. The FBI said Fox used his county clout to pressure National City Bank to loan $4 million to Carter so Dynus could take over the fiber-optics network.

When the other commissioners found out about the loans, Commissioner Charles Furmon asked the FBI to investigate in 2005.

Carter is now in prison for bank fraud. Other Dynus officials have been convicted. Former Butler County Auditor Kay Rogers pleaded guilty to taking a $9,500 payoff to falsely tell bankers that Dynus was an agent of the county.

The only loss by prosecutors: West Chester Township Trustee George Lang, a former Dynus official, was found not guilty of perjury.

The banks that loaned to Dynus lost millions. More than $5 million is still owed on fiber-optics bonds by Butler County taxpayers. And Jolivette was right: fiber optics now looks like rotary-dial phones "” a good technology that has been left in the weeds by wireless.

Fox, who struggled to stand during his court hearing, has had heart problems and diabetes. He has argued that he only wanted what was best for the county. But by any reckoning, he was personally tangled up in the fiber-optics network. He tied himself in knots with conflicts of interest.

His home was lost in foreclosure, his political career is in ashes, and the Hamilton prodigy who was censured by the Ohio Legislature is now guilty of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. He will be remembered not for a highway, but for the crooked road he chose.

When it all started in 2001, Fox said something that foreshadowed a lot of mistakes, missing money and enemies: "This may be one of those deals that does me in."

If only Mike Fox had listened to Mike Fox.