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Published: Wednesday, 1/17/2007

Brunner questions Blackwell staff bonuses

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - On his way out the door, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell handed 19 of his key employees more than $80,000 in bonuses, even as his replacement said she's $1 million short of what's necessary to meet her office's obligations through June 30.

Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat and former Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, took office Jan. 8.

Although the secretary of state paid year-end bonuses in the past, Ms. Brunner said her research showed the amounts paid just before Mr. Blackwell's departure were much higher, in some cases more than double, past bonuses.

"It appears he was giving his top folks a golden parachute," she told The Blade. "They're not as big as Enron, so maybe we'll call them bronze."

With the exception of one employee, nobody on the bonus list is still employed with the Brunner administration.

"Those were severance packages offered to members of senior staff," said Carlo LoParo, Mr. Blackwell's former press secretary and one of the recipients of the one-time payments.

"Depending on the severance package received, 10 members of the staff agreed not to accept unemployment benefits, which is a net savings for the office in terms of total pay-outs," he said.

"Dollars that were given to senior staff members were given because the secretary felt taxpayers had been given outstanding service through the years, and it was within his prerogative to dispense. It's not unusual and not unprecedented in the private or public sector."

The highest bonus was paid to Mr. Blackwell's assistant secretary of state, Monty Lobb, who received $7,923 - the equivalent of a month's salary. Some received the equivalent of two weeks' salary, while others received a week or less.

An internal memo dated Dec. 11 listed 18 of the bonuses with a handwritten addition of a bonus for Mr. LoParo, bringing the total to $80,185.57. The memo was signed by Dilip Mehta, Mr. Blackwell's former deputy director of finance, who received $7,765: a month's extra pay.

"We just came across this on Thursday night and were really shocked," said Ms. Brunner. "We have already had $225,000 in legal fees that apparently Mr. Blackwell couldn't pay until January because he didn't have the money, so we overnighted a check so that it was received no later than yesterday. Then you add another $2,250 for a mediator, and now we find there was $80,000 he paid out. It appears there were quite a few surprises."

Mr. LoParo said the $225,000 stemmed from a litigation settlement and that Ms. Brunner's staff had been informed that the delay was due to a new computerized state finance system coming on line, not a lack of funds.

He also said it's not unusual for the secretary of state, as the state's top elections official, to spend more in high-profile election years like 2006 than in off-years.

Ms. Brunner said she plans to ask the Ohio Controlling Board, which watches over the release of state funds, for permission to tap a larger share of the fees for business document filings than was originally approved under the office's two-year budget.

The office had a total two-year budget, ending June 30, of $19.1 million, counting additional funds supplied at Mr. Blackwell's request to reimburse counties for the cost of special elections. The office had $5.5 million left as of Dec. 31.

"$6 million for operations and payroll should cover all expenses quite easily," said Mr. LoParo.

"If Secretary Brunner has a large-scale project, like every other officeholder, she will need to justify that expenditure to the General Assembly."

In a year-end press release, Mr. Blackwell indicated that he left Ms. Brunner with "ample resources."

Mr. LoParo said Mr. Blackwell was counting the business-filing fee fund as well as unspent federal funds provided under the Help America Vote Act.

Mr. Blackwell, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor last year, was not Ms. Brunner's opponent in the November election, but she was critical of his performance during her campaign.

The governor's and state auditor's offices said no bonuses were paid by outgoing officials at the end of 2006. A spokesman for the attorney general's office was still checking, but said he was unaware of any.

The treasurer's office did not return a call. With one minor exception in the Senate, there were no year-end bonuses for legislative staff in 2006.

Both chambers, however, have provided staff bonuses in the past.

"I don't think it's a practice the public expects to see," Ms. Brunner said.

"The perception is that someone who works for the state has a good job with good benefits and a lot more security than a person may count on in the private sector. I see this as a trade-off when you work in government, that bonuses aren't something you would expect."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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