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Published: Thursday, 6/23/2005

Embattled Taft says he won't resign; golf outings with Noe, Snow are confirmed

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

MANSFIELD, Ohio Facing an investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission over whether he broke state law by failing to list golf outings on his financial disclosure statements, Gov. Bob Taft yesterday said he has no intention of resigning.

I have a year and a half to go, Mr. Taft told reporters after an event in downtown Mansfield. I have a lot of work I want to get done.

Ohio Democrats have been calling for the governor s resignation since he disclosed Tuesday, after being questioned by The Blade, that he had failed to include outings in which I participated on his annual financial disclosure statements.

Bill Wilkinson, an attorney representing Tom Noe, a Toledo-area rare coin dealer and prominent Republican fund-raiser, confirmed yesterday that Mr. Noe had golfed with Mr. Taft a couple of times.

But Mr. Wilkinson would not disclose who paid for the golf outings that Mr. Taft participated in with Mr. Noe whom Mr. Taft had reappointed to the Ohio Board of Regents and had appointed to the Ohio Turnpike Commission.

The Blade reported yesterday that a source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, ran into Mr. Noe in 2002 at Toledo s Inverness Club and that Mr. Noe told him that he was playing golf with Mr. Taft. Mr. Noe is not listed as a source of a gift on Mr. Taft s ethics statement.

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

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

Mr. Wilkinson said Mr. Noe would only disclose information about government officials he may have entertained including Mr. Taft to investigators.

Mr. Noe is under investigation by state authorities in connection with $10 million to $12 million missing from a rare-coin fund he created in 1998 and then convinced the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation to invest $50 million in.

He also is under investigation by the FBI for alleged campaign finance violations in connection with an October, 2003, fund-raiser for President Bush s re-election campaign. Mr. Noe is alleged to have laundered campaign contributions to the President by giving people money to give to Mr. Bush s campaign so he could avoid federal contribution limits.

The Blade learned yesterday that in October, 2001, Mr. Taft golfed with John Snow, the chairman and chief executive officer of CSX Corp. who became secretary of the treasury in February, 2003, and Neal Zimmers, a lobbyist for the transportation company. Mr. Snow is a native Toledoan.

The group golfed in the Columbus suburb of Dublin at Muirfield Village Golf Club, owned by Jack Nicklaus. Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman, told The Blade it was unclear who paid for the outing.

Mr. Taft yesterday wouldn t talk about whether his failure to disclose golf outings on his annual ethics statements involved Mr. Noe, Mr. Snow, or others; how many outings he failed to disclose, and how many years of free golf are involved.

The governor also would not say whether the state and federal investigations of Mr. Noe uncovered the golf outings that he told the Ethics Commission about on June 14. He said he had failed to disclose those outings on his ethics statements.

There s a lot I d like to tell you today, but I just can t because I want to respect the Ethics Commission process, Mr. Taft told reporters, who swarmed around him after a rally in downtown Mansfield to protest the Department of Defense s decision to close an Air National Guard station.

Snow Snow
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Asked if he felt he had committed a crime, Mr. Taft replied: Listen, what I know is I did the right thing as soon as I became aware that there probably were errors and omissions in my reports.

Catherine Turcer, legislative director of Ohio Citizen Action, a statewide consumer and environmental group, said Mr. Taft needs to be prosecuted.

The governor s admission on Tuesday that his financial disclosure statements failed to include golf outings came less than two weeks after the Bureau of Workers Compensation admitted it had lost $215 million in a high-risk hedge fund based in Bermuda in just a few months last year.

Mr. Taft said he was not aware of the extent of the loss until earlier this month.

I can see he is in a bad space right now for his managerial style and all the people who surround him, but this is the kind of thing that is deeply unacceptable, Ms. Turcer said.

State law prohibits a public official or employee from soliciting or accepting anything of value that has a substantial and improper influence on the official duties of a public official or employee and prohibits a person from promising or giving a public official such items.

The other section that the Ohio Ethics Commission will evaluate prohibits public officials from knowingly soliciting or accepting anything of value to renew the appointment of any person to any public office, employment, or agency.

The ethics panel also is examining an advisory opinion it released in 2001 that says state 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.

Gov. Bob Taft golfed at Inverness Club in Toledo with Tom Noe, according to Mr. Noe s attorney. It is a first-degree misdemeanor to knowingly falsify an ethics form, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Gov. Bob Taft golfed at Inverness Club in Toledo with Tom Noe, according to Mr. Noe s attorney. It is a first-degree misdemeanor to knowingly falsify an ethics form, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
ALLAN DETRICH / TOLEDO BLADE Enlarge

The advisory opinion also stated that Ohio law 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.

If a public official pays the lowest market-rate value for a golf outing, it is not a gift but it could be a violation of state conflict-of-interest laws if there are matters pending before that public official.

When Mr. Taft announced on Tuesday evening that he had failed to include golf outings on his financial disclosure statements, he added: At the completion of the [Ethics] Commission inquiry, I will disclose all information that should have been included on my financial disclosure forms.

Until that point, state law requires that information is kept confidential.

Democrats have pressed Mr. Taft to swiftly and completely disclose what golf outings he omitted on his ethics statements.

Ms. Turcer, of Ohio Citizen Action, said financial disclosure statements give people an opportunity to connect the dots, she said.

It is so necessary to root out corruption and to find out what are the economic and policy relationships. It becomes essential that each candidate and each public official is accountable, Ms. Turcer said.

Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett was not available for comment yesterday.

Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said Mr. Taft is taking the appropriate action in notifying the commission about the disclosure questions.

I think he has done what I would expect any responsible official to do when they become aware that they have left something out in a disclosure report, he said.

Mr. Blackwell, however, said it would be irresponsible to comment further until Mr. Taft outlines his addenda.

We ll wait to see what this is all about when the facts can see the light of day, he said.

That s the beauty of disclosure reports. It brings transparency to government that people can build the confidence with the government that people are doing the right things for the right reasons, Mr. Blackwell said.

Earlier this week, members of Ohio s Congressional delegation met with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and discussed the ramifications of the scandal swirling around the Ohio Statehouse.

The Democrats see an opportunity in Ohio amid the questions that have engulfed the state s GOP leadership.

Some of Ohio s congressional Democrats have said the culture of corruption in Columbus extends to Washington and DNC spokesman Josh Earnest echoed those comments yesterday.

Hobnobbing with special interests is par for the course for Republican politicians in Washington D.C. and in Columbus, he said. That s why voters in Ohio just like the rest of the country, are wondering who is looking out for their interests, while Republican politicians are wondering who is going to pay for their next round.

Jason Mauk, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said Democrats are being unfair in their portrayal of a scandal they call Coingate.

It s hypocritical for the party of Bill Clinton and Jerry Springer to think they have the high road on government ethics, he said.

Democrats will take any opportunity to avoid laying out a vision for Ohio because they don t have one. They are hiding behind this issue because they can play political games with it and avoid talking about substantive issues and substantive ideas.

Blade Staff Writer Steve Eder contributed to this report. Contact James Drew at:jdrew@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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