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Published: Tuesday, 3/15/2005

Kest says wine, pricey meals were campaign expenses

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER
Kest Kest
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The $165 Ray Kest spent out of his campaign account last year at the Tuscan Club in Sonoma County, California, was to buy bottles of wine for his office staff at Christmas.

And the $346 for a meal at the Sanibel Steakhouse, an upscale eatery on Florida's Gulf Coast? That was to meet with Lucas County taxpayers and campaign advisers.

Ditto that for the $85 he spent at Cork's Steakhouse in Naples, Fla., and the $365 bill at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla. hotel - all legitimate campaign expenses, the former county treasurer said, because he was meeting with campaign advisers and taxpayers.

Mr. Kest, who resigned as Lucas County treasurer Nov. 30 as part of a deal to sidestep charges of felony theft, provided the explanations to county elections Director Jill Kelly in two letters after questions were raised about 2004 expenditures from his campaign account.

Mr. Kest, who decided not to run for re-election last year in the aftermath of a financial scandal in his office, exhausted the $17,076 left in his campaign account, ending the year with a zero balance.

Even with the explanations, the elections board still has questions for the former treasurer:

●Why did his campaign pay for "family dues" at the Quarry Beach and Racquet Club, a private club in Maumee?

●What happened to a $2,700 computer his campaign purchased?

●What type of legal services were provided to the Kest campaign by Toledo lawyer Sheldon Wittenberg, who was paid $5,350 in campaign funds?

Mr. Kest told the elections board that the money paid to Mr. Wittenberg was for campaign-related advice or advice related to Mr. Kest's official duties as treasurer.

Mr. Wittenberg also last year represented Mr. Kest in his personal legal trouble that cropped up in 2003.

County elections officials are questioning Mr. Kest about expenditures from his campaign account because the use of campaign money to pay for personal expenses, and personal legal advice, is prohibited by state law.

Mr. Kest did not return a call seeking comment yesterday, but in a letter to Ms. Kelly, he said that "I had several meetings in southwest Florida with a few of my campaign supporters and taxpayers who have issues with the treasurer's office because we happened to be there at the same time.

"These meetings met several campaign guidelines: I discussed the possibility of running again for office, asking their advice, and they had tax issues with the office," Mr. Kest wrote.

Ms. Kelly said it is not the elections office's role to dispute the explanations of Mr. Kest.

"We are more or less like accountants, just auditing the figures," Ms. Kelly said. "Those [who] feel that this looks completely wrong, it's up to them to raise a red flag, unless it's something that isn't within the four corners of that [campaign finance guide] book" issued by the secretary of state.

She said the Ohio Elections Commission handles citizen complaints about campaign expenditures they feel are improper.

Mr. Kest stated in a letter to Ms. Kelly that the purchase of the computer was to help him conduct campaign business, including a public opinion survey to determine his viability as a political candidate.

"I felt this was a necessary expenditure because I did not feel comfortable using a county computer due to the extreme scrutiny on my every action," he wrote to Ms. Kelly.

The elections office advised Mr. Kest that while the computer is "an allowable expense," the campaign "committee is not permitted to keep the computer. You will need to sell the computer at fair market value. If you wish to purchase the computer yourself, you may do so at fair market value."

The letter asks Mr. Kest to provide written proof that his campaign committee has dispensed with the computer.

Mr. Kest, who has moved to Florida, has not explained to the elections board why he used campaign money to pay for "family dues" at the Quarry Beach and Racquet Club.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at:

fritz@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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