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COLUMBUS -- Gov. Bob Taft's former chief of staff twice rented a Florida home owned by Republican fund-raiser and local coin dealer Tom Noe for family vacations, and paid below market price for his spring-break stays in the $1 million home.
Brian Hicks told The Blade this week that he paid $300 to $500 for five nights in the 3,600 square-foot waterfront home in 2001 and stayed there again for a few days a year later. Both times, he was Mr. Taft's chief of staff.
He said he and Mr. Noe have been friends for more than a decade.
"I looked at a few places down there. He was not using his house at the time. He asked if I wanted to rent it. I said, 'Yes,' " Mr. Hicks said.
People familiar with real estate in the area said it costs between $2,000 and $3,500 a week to rent homes similar to the Noes' property. They expressed surprise at the price that Mr. Hicks paid for five nights during spring break, a peak season in the Keys.
"That probably paid the water and electric," said John Barton, a former neighbor. "They go for thousands a week."
"It's tough to get anything in season on a canal for less than $3,000 a week," said Glenn Hoover, a manager with Florida Keys Vacation Rentals, who added Mr. Noe's former neighborhood is considered "a very popular area."
Mr. Noe did not return calls yesterday and Mr. Taft's staff could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Hicks, 40, was Mr. Taft's most trusted aide during his two terms as secretary of state and as governor from 1999 to 2003, when Mr. Hicks stepped down to start his own lobbying and consulting firm.
During that time, Mr. Taft reappointed Mr. Noe to the Ohio Board of Regents and appointed him to the Ohio Turnpike Commission.
State Sen. Mark Dann, a Democrat from suburban Youngstown, was stunned by Mr. Hicks' admission.
"That's just tragic," he said. "My blood is absolutely boiling. I think it is very serious for Brian Hicks. I think it's up to the [inspector general] and prosecutors to determine if it was criminal."
Mr. Hicks defended the rental agreement and said he did nothing wrong.
He said he did not disclose it to the Ohio Ethics Commission because he felt he paid market value for the stay.
Members of the executive branch must disclose the source of gifts if the value exceeds $75. They cannot accept gifts from people who have matters before that particular agency or who do business or are seeking to do business with that agency.
It is unclear if Mr. Noe - who had a $50 million contract with the Ohio Bureau of Wokers' Compensation to invest bureau funds in rare coins - would have been a "prohibited source" for a gift. The bureau's administrator, as well as its oversight commission, are appointed by the governor.
"I rented the house like anyone else rented a house for spring break," said Mr. Hicks, who is now president and CEO of a lobbying and political consulting firm with offices in Columbus and Washington.
That firm, Hicks Partner, was hired by the Bush-Cheney campaign and the Republican National Committee to raise money in Ohio for the President's re-election campaign. The fund-raising included an October, 2003, lunch event in Columbus that raised $1.4 million for the campaign.
The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI are currently investigating whether Mr. Noe has violated federal campaign laws and is focusing on donations made at that fund-raiser, which Mr. Noe attended.
Mr. Hicks said he rented Mr. Noe's home twice. He said in 2001 that he, his wife, Kathy, and his two young children spent five or six days there. Mr. Hicks said the Noes were not there and he paid $300 to $500 at his insistence.
He said he stayed in the home's "apartment."
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Asked how he figured out the "market rate," Mr. Hicks said: "We determined that. It was my insistence on paying and my insistence on paying more than a minimal amount."
He returned a year later and rented the home when the Noes were there.
Mr. Hicks said he and his family spent perhaps two nights and three days there. He is unclear how much he paid that time.
"I can't tell you the amount we paid," he said. "We were doing other traveling."
Mr. Hicks said it's hard to determine "market rate" because local rules prohibit weekly rentals.
The Conneaut native said he may have asked Mr. Noe about the availability of the home. "I may have asked Tom for [rental] suggestions," he said.
Mr. Hicks isn't the only high-powered Ohio official to be a guest at one of the Noes' Florida homes.
Larry Householder, former speaker of the house, said he dropped in on the Noes in November and watched Ohio State beat Michigan in football at the Noes' new $2 million home in nearby Tavernier, Fla.
The Noes sold the Islamorada home in 2003 for $1.3 million, two years after buying it for $665,000.
Mr. Householder said he was attending a meeting of the National Conference of Insurance Legislators at Duck Key, about 30 miles southwest.
"I just dropped in," he said. "He didn't give me any money. He didn't spend anything on me. We just watched a ball game and ate pretzels."
Mr. Householder said after the game he returned to the insurance legislators' conference and did not need to disclose his visit to Mr. Noe's house because he didn't stay overnight or receive anything.
Mr. Hicks could not recall if the vacation at Mr. Noe's Florida home in Islamorada was in 2001 or 2002.
Mr. Hicks was Mr. Taft's chief of staff from 1999 to 2003 and was paid $118,000 when he left to join the private sector.
"As chief of staff, I did not provide any business to Tom in any way," Mr. Hicks said.
Mr. Hicks said he was aware that Mr. Noe did business with the Bureau of Workers' Compensation, but did not know about the rare-coin investment.
In 2001, Mr. Noe's Capital Coin received a second $25 million from the Bureau of Workers' Compensation to invest in rare coins.
Mr. Hicks said he has visited Mr. Noe's new residence, also in the Keys, during spring break this year and had lunch with Mr. Noe and his wife, Bernadette, and their children.
Mr. Hicks said he first met Mr. Noe in 1991.
"I have known Tom as a friend, someone willing to devote an inordinate amount of time for public service, whether it be the Regents, Bowling Green State University, or the Turnpike Commission.
There are very few business leaders who will devote that much time, and it's tough to get good people to serve on some boards," Mr. Hicks said.
Mr. Hicks is a 1987 graduate of Ohio State University and was student body president during his senior year.
Last year, Mr. Taft appointed him to the OSU board of trustees - considered one of the biggest political plums sought by businessmen because of the university's extensive network.
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