COLUMBUS - The Ohio Ethics Commission yesterday unanimously agreed to issue a warning to public officials that they may be entering dangerous waters when they double as officers for political parties that raise funds and then contribute to their campaigns.
Although the commission repeatedly said it was speaking “hypothetically,” there was little doubt the commission was discussing Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters. He chaired the Hamilton County Republican Party from December of 1999 to March, 2001, and later received more than $300,000 in campaign support from the party.
Some of those contributing to the party were brokers and bankers doing business with the treasurer's office, prompting Mr. Deters' Democratic opponent, Mary Boyle, to question whether there was a “pay-to-play” understanding between the contributors and the treasurer's campaign.
Although his campaign has admitted directing some contributors to the party, knowing it was “favorably inclined” to his campaign, Mr. Deters has repeatedly denied that any treasurer business was linked to campaign contributions.
“We will fully comply with any ethics decision,” said campaign spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. “I think all sides will welcome their guidance as it would clarify the issue for both Republicans and Democrats who serve dual roles as officials and party chairmen across the state.”
The commission has received no official complaint about Mr. Deters. It plans to issue an advisory opinion next month warning that public officials don't avoid a potential conflict of interest simply by changing hats between their elected and political roles. That opinion, however, will stress that there would have to be some evidence of bribery, attempt to defraud, or some other crime before the commission would assume jurisdiction.
“Duality in and of itself won't necessarily demonstrate that conduct has occurred,” said Executive Director David E. Freel. “It increases the likelihood of the conduct.”
Mrs. Boyle accused the ethics commission of whitewashing the affair. “Once again, Joe Deters is pushing the ethical limits of the law,” she said. “The Republican procedure here is to do the damage and then say, `I didn't do anything illegal and I promise never to do it again.'”