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Published: Sunday, 7/31/2005

Columbus-style justice

After all the misfeasance that the Republican gang of thieves in Columbus has visited upon the state of Ohio, a thousand-dollar fine for Gov. Bob Taft's former chief of staff is a joke - though Ohioans weary of the abuses of Coingate are in no mood to laugh.

Jail time of some sort was not only appropriate but essential. Instead, we imagine that Brian Hicks will simply pay his fine out of his petty-cash drawer and move on to his next big deal as a high-rolling consultant and lobbyist.

Mr. Hicks and his former executive assistant, Cherie Carroll, both accepted a deal and pleaded no contest Friday to one count each of state ethics violations. Each received a fine of $1,000 and no incarceration.

What are the people of Ohio to think when the first individuals to be formally charged in connection with Coingate walk away virtually unscathed?

Mr. Hicks, at one time considered by admirers and no doubt himself as the boy wonder of the Taft administration, was accused of knowingly submitting a false financial disclosure statement for failing to report that he had accepted vacation housing at Mr. Noe's Florida home at below-market rental rates.

He insists that during part of his stay at the Noe home, he used only an apartment. Even if true he didn't pay the market rate. And would Tom Noe really have limited the governor's top aide to the equivalent of servants' quarters?

Ms. Carroll was charged for accepting meals from Mr. Noe, when both she and Mr. Hicks were still in the governor's office.

Columbus Municipal Court Judge Scott Vanderkarr had an opportunity and an obligation to make a strong statement on behalf of the citizens of Ohio by coming down hard at sentencing. He had the power to impose not just a fine but, more importantly, a penalty of up to 180 days in jail. Instead he backed away.

No such leniency was shown to the late Paul Mifsud, who was given a six-month jail term in 1997 after he accepted work at his then-fiancee's home from a contractor while serving as former Gov. George Voinovich's chief of staff.

The gentle treatment of Brian Hicks amounts to one more slap at Ohioans who have grown weary of the Republicans' stranglehold on state government, their above-the-law arrogance, and the ethical bankruptcy that nearly 16 years of unchallenged authority have engendered. He should resign from his seats on the Ohio State University board of trustees, the Ohio Water Development Authority, and any other public boards. It would be the height of arrogance for him to remain.

We have seen contempt for the public and contempt for the legal system across the board from this bunch.

Only after The Blade asked the Ohio Supreme Court to hold Attorney General James Petro in contempt did his office finally pick up the pace on Friday and begin releasing records related to the Bureau of Workers' Compensation coin funds, something the court first ordered on July 13.

Now we learn that Greg White, the U.S. attorney for Ohio's northern district, has close ties to Governor Taft and Mr. Hicks and three years ago asked the governor's office to lobby President Bush for the appointment he subsequently got.

That in itself might not be so alarming except that Mr. White is an important part of the investigation into whether Mr. Noe violated campaign finance laws during the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2003.

On it goes, from Mr. Taft to Mr. Petro to Mr. Hicks to Mr. Noe to Mr. White. What a tangled web they weave. Despite the leniency shown Mr. Hicks, the Ohio Republican Party surely must realize that time is running out in its once peaceful world.

Criminal charges against two of Mr. Taft's former aides are just the first tremors. But an earthquake could be on the way.



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