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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2005

The $50 million slush fund

A bit of political misdirection may be involved, but Attorney General Jim Petro has provided the strongest indication to date that coin dealer Tom Noe illegally converted state funds to his own use from the get-go instead of properly investing $50 million for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

What emerges is a clearer picture of a politically well-connected but struggling Maumee businessman who quickly jumped from bouncing checks to living the high life and handing out generous contributions to Republican politicians by transferring at least $4 million in state money - which was supposed to help injured workers - into his own bank accounts.

Mr. Noe continued to manipulate his secret slush fund with shamefully lax state oversight from March, 1998, into late May of this year, when, according to the attorney general, he siphoned off a final $200,000.

And the $7.9 million in profits Mr. Noe claimed he reaped for the state from investing BWC money in rare coins? The attorney general says there may not have been any profits after all, that Mr. Noe simply returned the state's own money and called it profit, in the style of a classic Ponzi scheme.

"There was absolute theft of funds going on," Mr. Petro said during a news conference Thursday. "On Day One, Tom Noe took $1.375 million and put it in his personal or his business account."

The problem in all of this for Mr. Petro, who as state auditor was the beneficiary of at least $1,000 of Mr. Noe's 1998 campaign cash, is that the attorney general still cannot satisfactorily explain why he failed to take decisive action until nearly two months after The Blade blew the whistle on the coin deal on April 3.

The delay allowed Mr. Noe to sell off personal assets to pay his lawyers, diminishing whatever funds may eventually be recovered for taxpayers and deepening the impression that he was being protected by the Republican establishment.

Likewise, other GOP officials, including Auditor Betty Montgomery, kept their heads down when the story broke. This was hardly surprising, since Mr. Petro and Ms. Montgomery were allies with Mr. Noe in financing Maggie Thurber's successful 2002 campaign for Lucas County commissioner against Sandy Isenberg.

For his part, Gov. Bob Taft, who as secretary of state got a $4,500 contribution a mere week after Mr. Noe received his initial state windfall, vehemently defended the coin dealer, charging that The Blade was pursuing a vendetta.

But that was then.

Now, if the attorney general's version of the state's evidence proves correct, the extent of wrongdoing in what we've dubbed "Coingate" has only begun to be revealed.

Mr. Noe and his wife, Bernadette, both former Lucas County Republican chairmen, appear to have acquired opulent homes, cars, and at least one boat through an egregious pattern of commingling coin money with their own funds.

The result, as County Prosecutor Julia Bates remarked, is "a spider's web" of finances that will take months to untangle.

Also, federal and state investigators continue to comb through records to determine whether Mr. Noe used coin funds to channel illegal contributions to President Bush's re-election campaign in 2004. A grand jury is weighing indictments.

This sorry episode leaves Mr. Taft a wounded chief executive who cannot be trusted to make decent appointments to public posts, let alone develop and carry out state policy.

Mr. Petro, Ms. Montgomery, and other Republicans who seek to succeed the term-limited governor likewise have hurt their chances.

It's not a pretty picture to set before voters in 2006.



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