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Published: Tuesday, 2/14/2006

Political fur flies among officials

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS For months, Democrats used the Tom Noe rare-coin scandal to attack Republicans. Yesterday, Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell used Mr. Noe s indictment to attack Attorney General Jim Petro, questioning the integrity of his opponent in the Republican primary for governor.

Where was Jim Petro while Tom Noe allegedly pilfered millions of Ohio taxpayer dollars? asked Mike Hernon, Mr. Blackwell s campaign manager.

Mr. Hernon went on to accuse Mr. Petro of ignoring warnings from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and special counsels to investigate the investment practices of the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation, which gave Mr. Noe $50 million to invest in rare coins.

On top of that, while Tom Noe was alleged to be defrauding Ohioans, Jim Petro was giving taxpayer-funded special counsel work to Tom Noe s wife. That might be called the ultimate double dip, Mr. Hernon added.

Jim Petro s campaign manager, Bob Paduchik, said the statement from the Blackwell campaign was a blatant effort to politicize a very tragic situation. Mr. Paduchik added, Ken Blackwell knows better.

No state elected official has done more to expose Tom Noe and protect Ohio taxpayers than Jim Petro, Mr. Paduchik said. We are used to foolish statements from Ken Blackwell, but this is ridiculous.

Mr. Petro who has been accused of favoring political contributors in assigning the state s legal business told The Blade last summer that Mr. Noe s wife, Bernadette, may have lobbied his office for special counsel work for her firm.

Since 1990, Mr. Noe and his wife have contributed more than $200,000 to political candidates and causes, including $6,100 to Mr. Petro and $3,650 to Mr. Blackwell.

Most of those contributions were made after 1998 when Mr. Noe received his first installment of $25 million from the Workers Compensation Bureau.

Bill Binning, a political science professor at Youngstown State University, said the biggest danger to Republicans in the statewide election is a stinky, noisy trial. Will [Mr. Noe] name other figures and drag in other people?

The other question is if the Noe case goes to trial, will it be close enough to the November general election to damage the Republicans, Mr. Binning said.

If this is a theatrical drama, when will it come to stage? God forbid in the fall. I think that Blackwell is more separated from it, but I don t know if the public is that discriminating. If it gets to be a big stink and you re a Republican, you get that big stink on you and you have a problem.

The Republicans are big on prayer. They should be praying for a deal, for a plea, said Mr. Binning, a former chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party.

Thomas Charles, right, discuss the indictments as Howard Hudson, far left, Arnie Schropp, and Prosecutor Ron O Brien listen.
Thomas Charles, right, discuss the indictments as Howard Hudson, far left, Arnie Schropp, and Prosecutor Ron O Brien listen.
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As the GOP candidates for governor crossed swords over the Noe scandal for the first time since it broke 10 months ago, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said the allegation that Mr. Noe engaged in corrupt behavior carries special significance.

You can t engage in a pattern of corrupt behavior without willing participants, said Mr. Redfern, who is a state representative from Ottawa County.

He needed operatives, he needed officials, he needed help in violating state law. And the day I am looking forward to is when some elected officials who allowed this pattern of corruption to occur when they are held accountable too, Mr. Redfern said.

Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, called Mr. Noe a disgrace to himself and to his party.

When he s found guilty, he should face the strongest possible punishment, Mr. Bennett said in a statement. I am absolutely disgusted by his arrogance and abuse of trust, and this party has no tolerance for anyone who considers himself above the law.

Mr. Bennett said Mr. Noe is irrelevant to Republicans and Democrats shouldn t bank on him bolstering their political fortunes.

The Democrats have nothing to offer but protest and pessimism, and if they think Tom Noe is their ticket to statewide office, they ll be sadly disappointed on Election Day, Mr. Bennett said.

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland (D., Lucasville), the leading Democratic candidate for governor, said yesterday that he hopes others who were involved in the alleged scheme to defraud Ohioans will be brought to justice. Mr. Strickland said the allegations against Mr. Noe are a product of the state s one-party rule that has reigned for more than a decade.

It is an arrogance that comes from one party rule that is devoid of appropriate checks and balances, Mr. Strickland said. It appears that Mr. Noe and many of those in leadership in the Republican Party in Ohio there was just an arrogance and attitude that we can do just about any damn thing we choose to do and no one is going to hold us accountable.

Mr. Strickland said he expects his campaign could get a boost from Mr. Noe s indictments because they could add to the thirst for change in Ohio.

People know Jim Petro, and Ken Blackwell, and Bob Taft because they ve been in charge for a long time, Mr. Strickland said. There is a feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction and the fact that these indictments have come down will just further cause people to believe that Ohio is in need of a change.

State Auditor Betty Montgomery, who dropped out of the governor s race last month to run for attorney general, said in a written statement that since April, 2005, our office has been working closely with the investigative team relating to the BWC s coin investments, and we are pleased that our work has been and continues to be an integral part of that process.

Last year, Democrats criticized Ms. Montgomery who has returned $8,150 in contributions from Mr. Noe and his wife, of waiting too long to order a special audit of the coin funds that Mr. Noe controlled.

While Republicans may want this to be the end of the investigation, this is just the beginning, said state Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown area Democrat who emerged last year as a early critic of the rare-coin investment and who is now running for state attorney general. The task force investigating this issue continues to have an opportunity and an obligation to learn everything they can about the corrupt system that costs Ohioans millions of dollars every year.

The benefactors of Noe s campaign contributions over the past two decades need to come clean, Mr. Dann said. It s time they tell Ohioans what they know about the pay-to-play system in Ohio.

Paul Tipps, a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and a former lobbyist, questioned whether GOP state legislators would be smarter than congressional Republicans in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal by adopting reforms in the months after Mr. Noe s indictment.

If they do the reforms and do it in a timely fashion, they could take corruption off the table in the governor s race. If they do the cute stuff and fool around, it won t wash, Mr. Tipps said.

Catherine Turcer, legislative director for Ohio Citizen Action, a statewide advocacy group, said proposals that Governor Taft released last week to reform lobbying and contracting rules are full of holes.

For example, she said legislators and lobbyists should be required to file their ethics statements at the same time and state law needs to be changed to defrock lobbyists who are found to violate ethics laws.

Blade Columbus Bureau Chief James Drew contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Eder at: seder@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.


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