COLUMBUS - An attorney for congressional candidate Bob Latta yesterday stopped just short of apologizing moments before the Ohio Elections Commission unanimously reprimanded the Latta campaign for lying about opponent Steve Buehrer's positions.
The penalty marked the most serious stance the bipartisan commission has taken to date in the dueling complaints filed by both sides. Voters will decide in today's special primary election which party nominees will vie on Dec. 11 for the 5th District congressional seat in northwest Ohio left vacant by the death of U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor.
The two state lawmakers are the best-known in the field of five Republican candidates and have been tossing political grenades at one another in TV ads, flyers, and press releases over which one is more conservative.
At issue yesterday were varying statements in Latta mailings in October that Mr. Buehrer "opposed'' prayer in public schools and the posting of the Ten Commandments.
The Latta campaign extrapolated the statements from a 2002 Vote Smart survey that asked candidates to check specific positions they support. Mr. Buehrer left statements about prayer and the Ten Commandments blank.
Losing a valuable day of campaigning the day before the election, state Senator Buehrer (R., Delta) personally told the commission that a survey disclaimer specifically stated that failure to make a mark next to those statements did not necessarily indicate opposition.
He also noted that, while both were serving in the Ohio House, state Representative Latta (R., Bowling Green) had an office adjacent to Mr. Buehrer's, where the Ten Commandments had been displayed since 2003.
"Mr. Latta was in and out of my office numerous times, and the document was always posted where he or anyone else could see it," he said, adding that he supports voluntary prayer in schools and the voluntary posting of the Ten Commandments in government buildings.
"I would certainly not be in favor of mandatory posting of the Ten Commandments," he said. "I don't think public schools should have the Ten Commandments stuffed down their throats, but I certainly think that if the word 'voluntary' would have been in that [survey question], I would have supported it."
Scott Pullins, the Latta campaign's attorney, unsuccessfully argued it was not unreasonable to interpret Mr. Buehrer's failure to note support for those positions as opposition. He argued that Mr. Buehrer's attorney, Donald Brey, failed to prove Mr. Latta made the statements knowingly or recklessly.
"Was it misleading? Yes," he said. "Was it a cheap shot? Yes. Was it a political low blow? Yes. Did I want that statement to go out? No. Does the Latta campaign regret making that statement? Yes. But that's not the standard this commission has to apply."
Last month, the commission found Mr. Buehrer's campaign and a conservative Washington political action committee supporting him had violated Ohio election law by making false statements about Mr. Latta's 1998 vote in the Ohio Senate pertaining to a voter referendum on a possible sales tax hike. But the commission did not impose a penalty on either.
The commission could have referred both candidates for possible criminal prosecution in their respective cases but opted not to do so.
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