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Published: Sunday, 1/15/2006

Franklin County prosecutor faces conflict questions

BY JAMES DREW AND STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
O'Brien O'Brien
JACK KUSTRON / ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

COLUMBUS - Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O Brien s dual role as a Republican candidate for attorney general and a member of a task force investigating Tom Noe s failed state rare-coin funds and government corruption in Ohio, have prompted questions about whether he can carry out his official duties impartially.

Mr. O Brien has held three fund-raisers, seeking campaign cash from Republican backers as a candidate for office, while as a prosecutor, he must decide whether to prosecute Republicans for ethics violations.

State Sen. Tim Grendell, a Geauga County Republican who also is vying for his party s nomination for attorney general, said there is inherent concern about Mr. O Brien having a conflict of interest by being a candidate and a member of the team prosecuting corruption cases.

I think he needs to make a decision if he wants to run for attorney general or be part of that process investigating those issues, Mr. Grendell said.

Mr. O Brien s two potential Democratic opponents have raised the same issue. Among their questions is how Mr. O Brien can have GOP Attorney General Jim Petro host a recent Cleveland fund-raiser for him and sit on the federal-state task force that is investigating the investment practices of the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation - an agency which Mr. Petro has represented since 2003.

Mr. O Brien, who has been Franklin County prosecutor since 1997 and jumped into the attorney general s race on Dec. 30, rejected the criticism. He said no one on the task force has expressed any concerns about his presence as he campaigns to succeed Mr. Petro, who is running for governor.

I would expect to continue to be part of the task force because legally we have to be. If crimes were committed in Franklin County, we would be prosecuting them if they were state crimes, Mr. O Brien said. David Buchman, head of his white-collar crime unit, is working full vtime on the task force, the prosecutor said.

Last fall, the Ohio Ethics Commisson referred its investigations of two former high-ranking aides to Gov. Bob Taft to Franklin County and Columbus prosecutors for possible criminal charges for allegedly violating state ethics laws. So far, no action has been taken.

Douglas Moormann, who served as Mr. Taft s executive assistant for business and industry, received a $5,000 loan from Mr. Noe in 2004 after he had left the governor s office. He was a member of the Transportation Review Advisory Council, which reviews transportation projects for the state Department of Transportation.

H. Douglas Talbott, another former top aide to Mr. Taft, who is a lobbyist, said he accepted a $39,000 loan from Mr. Noe in 2002 to help him purchase a home in Lakeside, Ohio. At the time, he was a Taft appointee to the state Board of Cosmetology.

Neither Mr. Talbott nor Mr. Moormann, who is a lobbyist for the Cincinnati chamber of commerce, disclosed the loans on their annual ethics statements or listed Mr. Noe, a former Toledo-area coin dealer, as a creditor.

It is a first-degree misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, to knowingly fail to disclose gifts or loans on an annual financial disclosure form.

The state last year took over the rare-coin investment funds Mr. Noe managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation after a Blade investigation uncovered serious problems with the state investment.

Last week, Mr. O Brien came under fire for his failure to prosecute Michael Pirik, a former Republican Franklin County Municipal Court clerk, who was accused of wrongdoing.

In an Aug. 23, 2005, letter to a Columbus attorney representing clerk of court employees alleging wrongdoing by Mr. Pirik, Mr. O Brien said his office would not investigate the accusations being made within 75 days of the clerk s election unless the employees filed a criminal complaint in Municipal Court. Mr. O Brien appointed a special prosecutor to handle the case, and Mr. Pirik is now expected to plead guilty to records tampering charges.

As Mr. O Brien has been criticized for his handling of Mr. Pirik s case, Doug Preisse, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party, said it was the correct decision to appoint a special prosecutor - a Republican from Delaware County - shortly before the election in November. Mr. Pirik lost to a Democrat.

Had [Mr. O Brien] handled it himself, he would have been criticized no matter what the results were, Mr. Preisse said.

Mr. O Brien s political opponents - both Democrats and Republicans contend that he failed last year to aggressively prosecute fellow Republicans who broke the law, saying he allowed Gov. Bob Taft and his former chief of staff, Brian Hicks, to enter plea agreements in exchange for fines rather than calling for tougher penalties.

It seems that when it comes to these ethical violations emanating out of Columbus, he likes to plea bargain down to what I think many in the public would see as a slap on the wrist, said Mr. Grendell, Mr. O Brien s Republican opponent.

In Mr. Taft s case, Mr. Grendell said Mr. O Brien let the governor off the hook for other potential violations.

He gave a settlement agreement that absolved the governor of liability for other criminal acts, and then a week later, there were other violations, which by his own admission he couldn t pursue because of a very favorable plea agreement, he said.

Mr. Taft was convicted in August in Franklin County Municipal Court of four first-degree misdemeanor ethics violations for knowingly failing to disclose dozens of golf outings and other gifts valued above $75 that he received from lobbyists and businessmen, including Mr. Noe.

A week later, the governor s office released a list of eight gifts - including a box of steaks worth $100 - that Mr. Taft also failed to disclose on his annual ethics form. The Ethics Commission has not completed its investigation of additional sources of gifts that Mr. Taft didn t disclose. The issue is moot because the plea agreement that prosecutors signed with Mr. Taft says the governor cannot be charged with more counts dating to when he took office in 1999.

Mr. Hicks was convicted of failing to disclose cut-rate Florida Keys vacation accommodations he accepted from Mr. Noe.

Mr. Grendell said Mr. Hicks should have been required as part of his plea to resign his seat on the Ohio State University Board of Trustees.

Mr. Grendell said Mr. O Brien s management of the cases in the governor s office, along with the Pirik case, poses questions about his ability to set aside politics.

Ron O Brien can t be a part of a sweetheart plea deal with Bob Taft and look the other way when he was handed evidence of crime by a local official and then expect the public to have any confidence in his role on that task force, Mr. Grendell said.

Mr. O Brien said the task force is a finely balanced group of investigators from the Ohio Highway Patrol, Bureau of Workers Compensation fraud unit, state inspector general s office, FBI, Lucas County prosecutor s office, and U.S. attorneys from both the northern and southern districts of the state.

Subodh Chandra, a former Cleveland law director and assistant U.S. attorney based in Cleveland, said Mr. O Brien s entry into the attorney general s race as he serves on the state-federal task force creates some potential bad appearance.

What the people of Ohio need right now is a full nonpartisan accounting about what happened, where their money went ... and confidence that the people who are investigating don t have even the appearance of a conflict of interest, said Mr. Chandra, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

State Sen. Marc Dann, a Democratic candidate for attorney general from suburban Youngstown, said he would expect Mr. O Brien to do his official job without regard to the politics of the situation.

Mr. O Brien, defending his handling of ethics cases, said: I do have a record that shows that whether it is Republican or Democrat, whether it is misdemeanor or felony, or ethics or drunk driving, we try to do our job and do it for the right reasons without any particular favoritism and always subject to criticism by someone who is saying we are not doing enough or some who say we are doing too much. It is a very delicate balance.

Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said he doesn t expect Mr. O Brien s role on the task force to become a major issue, unless there are cases in which O Brien has declined to prosecute after the Ethics Commission found fault with someone.

Mr. O Brien has an opportunity to win over voters by rooting out corruption, Mr. Beck said.

I think we are in a time where people favor the good-government guy, so that is certainly going to be a pressure on him, he said.

Contact James Drew at: jdrew@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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