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COLUMBUS - Ohio Democrats said yesterday that the pending criminal charges against Gov. Bob Taft's former chief of staff provide yet more evidence of the "arrogance" of top Republicans in Columbus.
Colleagues of Brian Hicks, Mr. Taft's longtime senior aide, lashed back yesterday, saying the former administration official is being tried unfairly in the media on allegations that he violated the state's ethics laws by paying below market-rates to vacation at Tom Noe's Florida Keys home without properly reporting the stays to the state.
Chief Columbus City Prosecutor Stephen McIntosh said Tuesday he will file criminal charges against Mr. Hicks before the two-year statute of limitations on bringing complaints expires on July 31, two years after Mr. Hicks resigned from his government post.
Denny White, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said yesterday: "If [Mr. Hicks] didn't do anything wrong, obviously he doesn't have anything to worry about. If he violated some ethics laws, I think he might have some problems sleeping tonight."
In addition to Mr. Hicks, current and members of the governor's staff - including Mr. Taft himself - are facing investigations from the Ohio Ethics Commission on allegations that they accepted gifts without reporting them on financial disclosure forms.
Mr. Taft admitted more than a month ago that he failed to report a number of golf outings on his disclosure statements, but he has refused to publicly explain the "errors and omissions."
Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist and a longtime colleague of Mr. Hicks, said Ohioans should wait for the facts to make judgments in the pending investigations.
"A lot of people have been tried and convicted in the press when there is yet to be a single bit of evidence presented in court," Mr. Weaver said.
"Anybody who has broken the law should be held strictly accountable. Right now, the Democrats are acting as though people have already been convicted and that is not the American way."
Mr. Noe, a Republican fund-raiser, is facing multiple state and federal investigations after his attorneys acknowledged that up to $13 million was missing from the $50 million rare-coin fund he managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.
The bureau was considering another $25 million infusion for Mr. Noe's coin fund in the days before The Blade first reported on the coin fund on April 3.
Also yesterday, Mr. Taft's chief policy advisor, Kate Bartter, was deposed in a public records lawsuit by state Sen. Marc Dann, a Democrat from suburban Youngstown. Mr. Dann is demanding the governor release all weekly reports related to the bureau dating back to the late 1990s.
Last week, Mr. Taft released a portion of the reports, but he has refused to make public the remainder of the documents, claiming "executive privilege." Ms. Bartter appeared at the deposition in Mr. Taft's place. Transcripts of the meeting are expected to be made public today.
The Blade first reported on May 12 that Mr. Hicks paid $300 to $500 for five nights in the Noes' 3,600-square-foot waterfront house while serving as Governor Taft's chief of staff.
He also stayed at Mr. Noe's home on a second occasion.
Mr. Hicks, now a lobbyist and political consultant, has declined comment and his attorney could not be reached yesterday
Mr. Noe, and his wife, Bernadette, were interviewed Friday by the team of investigators looking into possible ethics violations by Mr. Hicks.
Mr. Noe is also facing a federal probe into whether he illegally laundered campaign contributions into President Bush's re-election campaign.
After The Blade reported Mr. Hicks' stay at the Florida home, Mr. Taft said he was aware that his former chief of staff had vacationed at the Florida home and he had no reason to be concerned about it.
He said it was a "disappointment" to him if Mr. Hicks acted unethically in vacationing at the home for less-than-market rates.
"I assumed he would have complied with the state law, so there wasn't any reason to do anything," Mr. Taft said in May.
Mr. Taft reappointed Mr. Noe to the Ohio Board of Regents and appointed him to the Ohio Turnpike Commission, but the former Toledo-area coin dealer has resigned from both posts.
A lawyer for Mr. Noe has acknowledged that Mr. Noe golfed with the governor at least twice, but would not say who paid for the outings.
"We said from the day when the coin scandal broke that was the tip of the iceberg," said Mr. White, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "These guys have been in control for almost two decades, and they've gotten pretty arrogant."
Mr. Weaver responded, saying "Ohioans know that there are good and bad people in both parties. Voters judge the overall record of the party."
He accused the Democrats of presiding over a great deal of corruption when they controlled state government in the 1980s.
"By November of 2006, voters will see that the Republican party stands for good government and improving Ohio and the Democratic Party stands for press conferences, allegations, and no real plans."
The fate of some individuals within the party, Mr. Weaver said, will depend on the forthcoming charges and the judicial process.
"A lot depends on what happens this week and in the weeks to come," he said. "There are lots of people in politics who have been accused of doing things and have been able to overcome them. We have to wait and see what happens."
The Columbus prosecutor has told The Blade that the forthcoming charges against Mr. Hicks "involve our review of the use of the home in Florida, as well as [Mr. Hicks'] receipt of gifts from people.
The prosecutor said he would have to show that Mr. Hicks and others who might be charged in the future "knowingly" did not report the gifts.
The improper receipt of gifts can bring a misdemeanor charge that can result in a $1,000 fine and a possible six months in jail.
Failing to disclose the gifts carries a $250 fine and a possible 30 days in jail.
Misdemeanor ethics violations are handled by the city prosecutor's office and not the Franklin County prosecutor's office, Mr. McIntosh said.
Herb Asher, who is a political science professor at Ohio State University, said much will hinge on what other revelations come to light .
The scandal, he said, already "is raising questions not just about integrity, but about competence, values, smarts - about a whole variety of things."
Blade staff writers Mike Wilkinson, Christopher D. Kirkpatrick, and Joshua Boak contributed to this report.
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