COLUMBUS - During a lull in debate over a $51.2 billion, two-year budget, Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted took a Florida fishing trip with three Columbus lobbyists with stakes in the budget outcome.
But the Kettering Republican said he paid his way and the lobbyists, all personal friends, avoided discussing state business on the Memorial Day weekend trip to Pine Island near Ft. Myers. "This was a personal trip where I was spending my own money," Mr. Husted said. "I was taking my son. We had already finished the budget in my mind. It had already passed out of the House.
"I reimbursed for every expense," he said. "I paid for the airline tickets, food, all of those things. I followed the rules. In no way do I feel that we compromised the integrity of anything."
Along for the trip were:
● ●Dan McCarthy of The Success Group, whose clients include utilities, alcohol producers, waste-disposal companies, and health organizations that had mixed results with their pet issues in the budget.
● ●Dan Jones, whose clients include the Scotts-Miracle Gro Co. in Columbus. The budget included a ban on local governments imposing regulations on seed and fertilizer use and storage.
● ●Nick Lashutka, director of government relations for the Ohio Business Roundtable, which helped to guide the budget's tax reform package. "The speaker paid his own way and followed the spirit and letter of the law," Mr. Lashutka said. Mr. McCarthy declined to comment. Mr. Jones could not be reached for comment.
Simply adhering to the letter of the law may not be enough in the post-Tom Noe atmosphere in Columbus, Ohio State University political analyst Herb Asher said. "You have questions about the letter of the law and then you have questions about appearances ... ," he said. "Appearance is a much more amorphous thing, but in the context of what's been happening over the last couple of months, I'm not sure that that kind of trip with lobbyists seems like a savvy thing to do, even if it is legal."
Gov. Bob Taft faces potential criminal charges after revealing Tuesday he failed to report golf outings on his financial disclosure statements with the Ohio Ethics Commission.
At least two of those outings were reportedly with Mr. Noe, the Maumee coin-dealer and Republican fund-raiser at the heart of a scandal involving Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation losses in unusual rare-coin investments Mr. Taft said he knew nothing about.
Mr. Husted and his 9-year-old son shared a bedroom for two nights in the $427,940, 3,200-square-foot, three-bedroom home of Joseph Feidner, Mr. McCarthy's father-in-law. Mr. Feidner and Mr. McCarthy had the other two bedrooms. The other two lobbyists shared a nearby rented house.
Mr. Husted produced a carbon copy of a $100 personal check he wrote to Mr. Feidner, and a copy of a contract for a smaller house five doors away that rented for $1,300 a month. He and Mr. McCarthy used that figure to prorate the value of a daily rate of $50, he said.
Al DeCosta, an agent with Century 21 in St. James City, estimated the rental value of a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house like Mr. Feidner's at between $3,000 and $4,000 per month.
At $3,000 a month, split three ways for three bedrooms, Mr. Husted's share would have been about $34 a night, $50 if it were divided four ways and he paid for himself and his son.
"I try to run an open and fair operation, but this gives me pause to reflect to make sure there aren't any perception problems," Mr. Husted said. "I know we don't have any actual problems."
Catherine Turcer, of government watchdog Ohio Citizen Action, said a person cannot get a room at a Motel 6 for $50, let alone a room in a private home located along a canal with access to Mr. Feidner's private boat.
"This just shows what an enmeshed, dysfunctional family we have," she said. "That the speaker didn't consider this inadvisable or possibly inappropriate in the midst of an enormous budget battle is surprising to say the least."
Mr. Husted said he used cash to buy gasoline for the boat and that others were always on board.
House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), who has been highly critical of Mr. Taft and Mr. Noe, defended Mr. Husted. "There's a little bit of witch hunting going on now," he said. "We're starting to reach. If we criticize every legislator who has received a dinner at any time, it's going to be almost the entire body. I've done it.
"I've never traveled to Florida, and I'll leave it to others to draw conclusions as to whether that was appropriate, but I see no violation of ethical standards as written in Ohio," he said.
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