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Published: Wednesday, 9/21/2011

TARTA sparks bill to penalize political use of public funds

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Illegal use of public funds for political purposes would become criminally punishable in Ohio as a first-degree misdemeanor if a bill introduced yesterday in the Ohio House of Representatives becomes law.

Auditor of State Dave Yost, who joined with other officials in a news conference to announce the legislation, said it was inspired by his office's recent discovery that the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority had lent $66,885 to Citizens for TARTA, a levy campaign committee. Mr. Yost said the offense was compounded by TARTA General Manager James Gee's dual role as the campaign committee's treasurer.

"Taxpayer money and politics do not mix," Mr. Yost said in a statement issued after the news conference. "Government managers who can't tell the difference deserve a season pass to their local jail."

Although current Ohio law forbids governing bodies to "use public funds to support or oppose the passage of a levy or bond issue," there is no penalty for doing so. A first-degree misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, six months in jail, or both.

"This bill closes a major loophole, while bringing consistency to campaign financing laws," said state Rep. Jeff McClain (R., Upper Sandusky), a co-sponsor of House Bill 326 along with state Rep. Brian Hill (R., Zanesville).

"Protecting Ohio's taxpayers is a major concern and this bill will help ensure that tax dollars are not used for political gains," Mr. McClain said.

A first hearing of the bill is scheduled for today by the House criminal justice committee.

The transit authority lent the money to Citizens for TARTA in 2007 and 2008.

After Mr. Yost in early May issued a "finding for recovery" of the loans, Mr. Gee said their legality had been upheld by the Ohio secretary of state's office, to which the Lucas County Board of Elections referred a TARTA inquiry after a transit authority auditor questioned the practice.

But language used in a letter that elections board representative Olga Vallejo sent back to TARTA reporting the secretary of state's opinion suggested that someone in either office had mistaken TARTA for a private corporation.

A combination of Citizens for TARTA funds and a $49,000 claim to the Ohio Transit Risk Pool, filed jointly by TARTA and Mr. Yost's office, reimbursed the transit authority for the loans.

The transit pool, which provides insurance and public-employee bonds to Ohio transit agencies, is eligible to pursue collection of funds from the claim from Citizens for TARTA. Mr. Gee said a payment plan of $500 per month has been in effect since July.

At that rate, it would take Citizens for TARTA at least until August, 2019, to retire the claim.

As he had before, Mr. Gee said the loans were made in good faith and reported each year in TARTA's financial statements as funds receivable.

"There was no intent to do anything wrong, no intent to conceal what we were doing," he said. "Once we got the opinion [from Mr. Yost], we made sure TARTA was paid back as quickly as possible."

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.


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