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Published: Wednesday, 6/22/2005

STATE OF TURMOIL

Taft did not report golf outings, allegedly with Noe, to the state

BY JAMES DREW AND STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS -- As a widening scandal at the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation threatens his administration, Gov. Bob Taft last night admitted that he had failed to include golf outings on his annual financial disclosure statements filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission.

A source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, yesterday said that Tom Noe, a Toledo-area coin dealer at the heart of the state investment scandal, told him at Toledo's Inverness Club in 2002 that he was playing golf there with Governor Taft.

The source, who had played golf in the morning, said Mr. Noe told him he would play golf with the governor that afternoon. The source told The Blade that he did not see Mr. Taft, but heard later there may have been other occasions when Ohio's governor played the Inverness course with Mr. Noe.

Mark Rickel, Mr. Taft's press secretary, refused to confirm or deny that Mr. Taft had failed to list one or more golf outings involving Mr. Noe on his financial disclosure statements.

He also would not say how many golf outings Mr. Taft had failed to disclose since taking office in 1999.

State law requires officeholders to list each source of gifts over $75. A round of golf at Inverness for a guest is about $140.

The governor's office last night issued a statement about the golf outings after The Blade earlier in the day began asking questions about whether Mr. Taft would file an addendum to his financial disclosure statement.

'On my own initiative, I have determined that financial disclosure forms filed annually with the Ohio Ethics Commission failed to include golf outings in which I participated. Realizing that I had made errors, I thought the most appropriate course of action was to notify the Commission. I did so on June 14, 2005.

"I am currently conducting a full review of previously filed disclosure statements to ensure that the Commission has received complete and accurate information. I take full responsibility for any errors and omissions and will continue to cooperate with the Commission in this matter," Mr. Taft wrote.

The governor attached to the statement a letter dated June 14 to Merom Brachman, chairman of the Ethics Commission.

"It has recently come to my attention that I failed to list a number of golf outings or events on my financial disclosure forms over the past several years," he wrote.

It is a first-degree misdemeanor to knowingly falsify an ethics form, with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Mr. Taft has hired an attorney to represent him on the matter.

A task force of state and federal authorities is investigating whether Mr. Noe misappropriated $10 million to $12 million from a rare-coin fund he created in 1998 and convinced the Workers Compensation Bureau to invest $50 million in.

Mr. Noe, a former member of the Ohio Board of Regents and the Ohio Turnpike Commission, also is under investigation by the FBI for alleged campaign finance violations. He is suspected of laundering contributions to President Bush's re-election campaign.

In addition to hosting fund-raisers and asking others to give, Tom and Bernadette Noe personally have contributed more than $200,000 to local, state, and federal candidates, parties, and political action committees over the last 15 years, including $21,494 since 1998 to Mr. Taft.

State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) said "Mr. Taft has done the same thing he fired department heads over."

'A serious indictment'

"How many times do we have to forgive the blatant corruption?" Ms. Fedor said. "This is a serious indictment on how our state government is being run, and it is starting from the top."

She said the governor notified the Ethics Commission only because he has been caught.

"It's a cover-up. Obviously, he is covering his tracks," she said.

Jason Mauk, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, declined to comment last night.

State Sen. Marc Dann, a Democrat from suburban Youngstown, said legislators will examine the facts before deciding whether to press for Mr. Taft's resignation or advocate his removal from office.

"He may have committed a crime. I would encourage the governor to come completely clean. I'm a big believer in the Fifth Amendment, but the governor of the state has a duty to come clean," Mr. Dann said.

Mr. Rickel said Mr. Taft has no plans to resign.

"He's looking forward to signing the budget bill into law, promoting the economy, and creating new jobs," Mr. Rickel said.

House Minority Leader Chris Redfern of Catawba Island said last night he wants to know what Mr. Noe discussed with the governor while on the golf course.

"Did the governor discuss the $50 million investment the state had with Tom Noe?" he asked. "I'd like to know what they talked about. I suspect at some point someone mentioned to the governor that the state invested $50 million in gold coins, Beanie Babies, and whatever else."

Two high-ranking members of Mr. Taft's administration have stepped down because they failed to disclose golf outings.

In February, 2003, an investigation by the inspector general said Randy Fischer, executive director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission, accepted gifts from've ndors, including free golf.

Mr. Fischer, who resigned in 2002, pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor ethics violations.

Under pressure from Mr. Taft, Gino Zomparelli, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission, resigned in 2002 after the inspector general documented 170 instances from 1999 to 2001 in which at least 30 turnpike employees accepted gifts, meals, sports tickets, and golf outings from 18 companies with contracts on the toll road.

No 'amended' forms

There is no provision in state law for an "amended" ethics form.

Public officials can provide an addendum, which triggers an examination whether the person inadvertently failed to disclose information or there was a knowing falsification.

Mr. Taft's statement yesterday said that at the advice of counsel, he will refrain from comment until the Ethics Commission resolves this matter.

"At the completion of the Commission inquiry, I will disclose all information that should have been included on my financial disclosure forms," Mr. Taft wrote.

In June 2001, the commission issued an advisory opinion pertaining to gifts in the form of golf outings, stating Ohio law prohibits "any party who has business, regulatory, or other official relationships with a public agency from promising or giving a round of golf ... to the officials and employees of the agency.'

State law also prohibits a public official or employee from accepting a golf outing from a party that is interested in matters before, regulated by, or doing or seeking to do business with his or her public agency, the opinion said.

If there are many gift omissions, Dan Trevas, a spokesman for the gubernatorial campaign of Democratic Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, said it certainly becomes very disappointing, especially for a governor who has stressed ethics as one of the cornerstones of his administration.

"It does illustrate what has been most disappointing to Mayor Coleman since the beginning of this whole episode: The unwillingness of Bob Taft and other state officials to fully disclose their relationships with Tom Noe, the other investment managers, and their associates," Mr. Trevas said. "It is truly disappointing that we learn more about these relationships only because the media has the guts to ask and pry."

Mr. Taft's admission comes nearly three weeks after the Ethics Commission said it is investigating whether a former high-ranking aide to Mr. Taft, H. Douglas Talbott, violated state ethics law by accepting $39,000 from Mr. Noe.

Yesterday, Curt Steiner, a chief of staff to former Gov. George Voinovich, said that he recalled Governor Taft playing golf with him two or three times between 2000 and 2003 at Tartan Fields Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, where Mr. Steiner was a member.

Mr. Steiner was a political and business consultant when he golfed with the governor, before becoming senior vice president for external relations at Ohio State University.

'To the best of my recollection, he paid," said Mr. Steiner, who did not recall the dates or exactly how many times he played golf with the governor.

Mr. Steiner said the conversation while golfing usually revolved around the sport.

"He is an avid golfer. I'm sure he doesn't have that much time to play," said the former consultant, whose firm worked for the Ohio School Facilities Commission and the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System. "When I've run into him from time to time, that's one of the things we talk about. It's something we both like."

Contact James Drew at:jdrew@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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