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n7bell In this 2011 photo, Mayor Mike Bell, center, accepts a gift from Zhao Talimu of Beijing Conservatory. To the mayor’s left is  Kathy Carroll, Toledo Symphony president, and Amy Chang, associate principal cellist.
In this 2011 photo, Mayor Mike Bell, center, accepts a gift from Zhao Talimu of Beijing Conservatory. To the mayor’s left is Kathy Carroll, Toledo Symphony president, and Amy Chang, associate principal cellist.
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Published: Saturday, 1/4/2014 - Updated: 6 months ago

Gifts Bell got on travels paid by city not in office

Ex-mayor gave some away, took some home

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Mayor Mike Bell’s affinity for world travel and inviting overseas investors to Toledo was unmistakable.

Bell Bell
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Gifts from Chinese investors and officials he met during four city-related trips to the country filled his office, as did items received as gifts while in Japan and some that the mayor of Hyderabad, Pakistan, presented to the city last year.

Nick Nick
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Taxpayers paid for nearly all the mayor’s travels.

D. Michael Collins entered the mayor’s office Friday for the first time as mayor and found none of that city property.

Mr. Bell previously said — sometime in 2012 — he would leave everything behind when he left office.

“When I leave, all this will be here,” he told The Blade.

But not long after Mr. Collins defeated him Nov. 5, Mr. Bell made arrangements to give away some items to staffers, give some to Toledo Sister Cities International, and take some home.

“Some of them are sitting in those boxes,” Mr. Bell said last week, pointing to a dozen banker’s boxes in his office awaiting movers to take them to his West Toledo home. “Some of them are going to Sister [Cities] International; some of them are going into my house — they’re mine. Some of them I have actually given to employees. It just depends. Wherever.”

Jen Sorgenfrei — city spokesman for the Bell administration, among the city employees to lose their jobs with the start of the Collins administration — said an inventory of the gifts was never kept, so tracking them is difficult.

The problem former Mayor Bell may encounter is that the items may not have been his to keep or give away, said Paul Nick, Ohio Ethics Commission executive director

During his first three years in office, Mayor Bell did not list a single gift he received in China, Japan, or India on Ohio Ethics Commission financial-disclosure statements for those years, as required for items valued at more than $75. His 2013 disclosure has not yet been filed. “A lot of it depends on what capacity [a gift] has been accepted,” Mr. Nick said. “Most mayors or similar officials across the state would leave those in the office. If it is as a candidate, I suppose the candidate could retain the items.”

Mr. Nick said Ohio ethics laws do not require cities to keep gift inventories.

Absent listing a gift worth more than $75 on the form, the mayor is not supposed to retain the gift, Ohio ethics law states.

Former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft became the first sitting governor convicted of a crime in 2005 when he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor ethics charges for failing to disclose gifts he received, including golf outings linked to Toledo-area coin dealer Tom Noe. Noe was convicted and sent to prison for embezzling from $50 million in rare-coin investments he operated for the state.

Among the items missing from former Mayor Bell’s office is a set of adjoined bells he received during his second trip to China in May, 2011, from Zhao Talimu, president of the Beijing Conservatory. Zhu Haowen, mayor of Qinhuangdao — Toledo’s sister city in China — also gave Mr. Bell a gift during a ceremony on that trip.

Two miniature, traditional-looking Chinese lions stood guard on Mr. Bell’s desk for more than two years. Mr. Bell said those statues were given to him by potential investors who visited the city, but he could not recall who they came from or what became of them. “They have already been given away and do I remember the exact city? No,” he said. “I think they have already been given away.”

Also missing is a tea set consisting of a yellow teapot and six cups that sat on a coffee table in Mayor Bell’s office.

Susan Miko, executive director of Toledo Sister Cities International, showed The Blade several items she received from Mayor Bell. Two appeared to be from China — a picture and a framed, round stone relief with a carved dragon.

Three other items now in the organization’s 21st-floor office at One Government Center were given to Mayor Bell by Syed Barkaat Ahmed Rizvi, Hyderabad’s mayor: a toy-sized three-wheeled vehicle, common to that country; a miniature model of a horse-drawn Pakistani carriage, and traditional-looking collapsible dish with a handle and four heart-shaped compartments.

One item from the mayor of the Pakistani city, a brown blanket that sat on a credenza near the mayor’s office, is unaccounted for.

Mr. Collins said city property should not be given away or kept by the outgoing mayor. “It was my understanding those were given to the city of Toledo and therefore they are city property,” he said. “In my service, should I receive things from anyone, I will at this point in time follow the law, but my personal feeling is I do not believe that I, as the mayor of Toledo, have the authority to dispose of property that has been given to the city of Toledo as the office of the mayor.”

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171 or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.



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