Taft dodges questions on golf outings; Noe sold coins he owned to the state

6/29/2005
BY JAMES DREW AND STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Bodoh
Bodoh

COLUMBUS A week after Gov. Bob Taft acknowledged that errors and omissions marred his financial disclosure forms, the embattled governor refused yesterday to reveal any information about the undisclosed golf outings that have prompted an Ohio Ethics Commission investigation.

The governor, after a luncheon at the Statehouse, shielded himself from reporters questions, saying he did not want to disperse inaccurate information and that he wanted to respect the process of the commission.

Mr. Taft has hired a criminal defense attorney, William Meeks, to represent him. Mr. Meeks did not return several phone calls.

The governor is attempting to provide an addendum to his annual ethics statements, a request which triggers an investigation by the Ethics Commission into whether the person inadvertently failed to disclose information or if there was a knowing falsification.

If the commission believes there is a possible violation of law, it could refer the matter to the Franklin County prosecutor s office.

As Mr. Taft refused to answer questions about his golf outings which included two allegedly with coin dealer Tom Noe Attorney General Jim Petro said the state has determined that Mr. Noe sold coins he owned to the state. But it s unclear yet whether Mr. Noe personally profited from those sales.

What we have to determine is whether the sale price to the state was a fair sale price, said Mr. Petro, who held a news conference with William Bodoh, the former federal bankruptcy judge he appointed to oversee liquidation of the state s rare-coin investments.

The state continues to comb through thousands of pages of records to unravel Mr. Noe s financial dealings using money from the Bureau of Workers Compensation.

This is a gargantuan task to go through 130-some boxes of records to find out what those records show and then, What about the records we don t have? And I can t speculate on those, because we don t know, Mr. Bodoh said.

We stepped into a $50 million business made up, in part, of lots of small things and it is taking some time to find out what we have and then what we should have, he said.

Bill Wilkinson, Mr. Noe s attorney, did not return messages seeking comment.

Federal and state investigations were launched after attorneys for Mr. Noe said up to $13 million in state assets were not accounted for.

Although the Ethics Commission investigation is confidential under state law, Mr. Taft or his attorney are free to discuss what was not listed on the financial disclosure statements.

John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron, said the governor should be held to a high standard.

However, given all the confusion and missteps surrounding these controversies, it does make sense to get the story right once and for all. So a cautious response with the advice of outside attorneys is appropriate, Mr. Green said.

There s nothing in Ohio ethics law that prohibits the governor of Ohio from telling the truth, said state Sen. Marc Dann, a Democrat from suburban Youngstown and a critic of the coin and investment scandal.

Mr. Taft yesterday refused to answer or deflected 10 questions from reporters about his golf outings, fueling charges from political opponents that he is stonewalling.

• When asked if it s true that there were more than a dozen instances when he did not report golf outings, the governor replied, I can t [divulge that] because I don t want to put out information that may be inaccurate. It s very important that we have thorough and complete disclosure here with respect to the errors and omissions.

• After being asked if he was aware of a 2001 Ethics Commission ruling that bars public officials from accepting free golf outings with people doing business with the state, Mr. Taft said, I m not going to comment at this time on what I was aware of and what I was not aware of.

• Asked how his errors compare to the issues that caused others in his administration to resign, he said, I m not going to get into characterizing the errors and omissions right now because we are still in the process of documenting all of those and providing complete information just as fast as we can to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

• After he was asked for a timetable for releasing the information to the public, Mr. Taft said, In accordance with the process that the Ethics Commission has.

More than a dozen reporters questioned the governor during a brief session outside the Statehouse Atrium yesterday after he concluded a luncheon honoring Ohio companies for achievements in exporting business.

During a public appearance last week in Mansfield, the governor also refused to shed light on the problems with his financial disclosure statements.

Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said yesterday he didn t know when Mr. Taft would disclose what information he had failed to include on his statements.

When attorneys get involved, they don t operate on your time or mine, Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Taft yesterday refused to say whether he was aware of the 2001 Ethics Commission advisory opinion that said it s a violation of state law for a public official to accept free golf outings with people doing business with their agency in state government.

But last month, during an ethics symposium at Xavier University, Mr. Taft made comments that illustrated his knowledge of the rules, saying, Public servants must pay if they want to play.

Public employees can enjoy entertainment, such as golf or dining out with persons working for a regulated company or one doing business with that state only if they fully pay their own way, he said during the Xavier speech.

Mr. Taft also would not say if someone reviewed his disclosure forms before they were filed.

At his news conference, Mr. Petro said the attorney general s office has made a request to take Mr. Noe s deposition next month as part of the lawsuit that the state filed May 27 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

The state has secured $8 million from the rare-coin investment and is closing in on $10 million, primarily in loans that have been repaid, Mr. Bodoh said.

Yesterday, Mr. Petro repeated that he didn t know until June 7 about the state s $215 million loss in a high-risk hedge fund managed by Pittsburgh-based MDL Capital Management.

He said the special counsel assigned to review MDL s activities the Columbus law firm of Schottenstein, Zox & Dunn failed to provide written communications to the attorney general s office about the huge investment loss.

The attorney general said he told David Robinson, a former Republican state legislator and the firm s attorney assigned to examine MDL s investment loss, that he had made a mistake.

I can see that the Democrats will fairly do everything in their power to make some conspiracy charges, because that s good politics.

I m not sure Dave Robinson knew much about this case. I think the securities lawyers had been involved in it. I don t sense that there is any information that would convince me that there was a cover-up. I think there was a screw-up, Mr. Petro said.

Mr. Robinson withdrew as special counsel last week. The state has sued MDL and several of its principals, alleging fraud and breach of contract. MDL s chairman, Mark D. Lay, has denied any wrongdoing.

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