COLUMBUS -- Two former aides to Gov. Bob Taft former Chief of Staff Brian Hicks and his former executive assistant, Cherie Carroll were convicted and fined by a judge yesterday for taking gifts from coin dealer Tom Noe a political climber who golfed with the governor and sought audiences with President Bush.
Mr. Noe, over the 1980s and 1990s, worked hard to painstakingly chisel a powerful image one for the governor's staff to revere and for power brokers to admire as he spread hundreds of thousands of dollars across the state to Republican candidates.
Along that vein, he treated lobbyists and Mr. Taft's staff to expensive meals and invited them on vacations. They helped him gain seats on some of the most influential boards in Ohio.
He wanted to be a Bush pioneer and succeeded, raising more than $100,000 for the President's re-election.
That marble image has now faded, and his legacy may be singlehandedly dismantling the decade-long GOP grip on state politics: The scene yesterday morning, in a Franklin County courtroom, may have been an early act in that political drama.
In the courtroom, packed with journalists and the usual sad defendants of city life prostitutes, drug defendants, and others Mr. Hicks, in government dark suit and red tie, and Ms. Carroll, in polished black shoes and professional suit, were convicted at the staged court appearance.
The two became the first convicted on criminal charges related to the sweeping investigation into the rare-coin scandal that, in addition to focusing attention on Mr. Noe and his wife, Bernadette, has shined a bright stage light on the inner workings of the governor's office and Ohio Republican Party politics.
Mr. Hicks and Ms. Carroll each received the highest possible fine, $1,000, but did not receive jail time for the first-degree misdemeanors. They also could have been sentenced to six months each in jail.
Reacting to the convictions, Mr. Taft said his lawyers would review his office's ethics policy to see if it needed to be revamped.
In a written statement, the governor said: "Obviously, I am disappointed that Brian and Cherie failed to comply fully with disclosure laws. I believe they did the right thing in admitting it and being willing to be held accountable for their mistakes."
Florida vacation, meals
Mr. Hicks was accused of not reporting a below-market-rate stay at the Noes Florida Keys vacation property, a total of nine days on two occasions, one time in 2002 and again in 2003, he said.
Ms. Carroll was charged with an ethics violation because she accepted expensive meals paid by Mr. Noe that could have influenced her in her job.
The dinners flush with steaks, drinks, and hundreds of dollars left in tips became legendary in Columbus government circles.
And like many off-the-radar, larger-than-life events, the unofficial Morton's steakhouse gatherings picked up a nickname: the "Noe Supper Club."
Ms. Carroll said little at the hearing and did not have a comment after the hearing at Franklin County Municipal Court. Her lawyer in court defended the meals as more like casual social gatherings with many people and not payoffs for favors or improper dealings.
"I'm not trying to lessen her conduct at all. She will be the first to tell you that she exercised poor judgment in having dinners [with Mr. Noe]," Karl Schneider, lawyer for Ms. Carroll, told the court. "I want to put it in perspective because this was not Cherie and Mr. Noe, these two, at Morton's having dinner. There were a number of people who did this."
Mr. Hicks flanked by three lawyers and a media handler who arranged interviews after the court session addressed the judge and then held a press conference outside. He had a prepared written statement and also fielded questions about his time as Mr. Taft's chief of staff and about Mr. Noe.
He said that he did nothing wrong. As a public official, he has always paid his own way, he said.
"In spite of this intense review, or perhaps because of it, this investigation comes full circle to where it began, with a disagreement over the value of a family vacation," he said outside the courthouse. "It is no secret that my family and the Noe family have been friends for many years. I am saddened that the Tom Noe I read about today is not the Tom Noe I knew.
"If it turns out that Tom Noe is a con man, he is a con man that conned people from the courthouse to the White House."
The criminal-court drama was previewed, like most significant government events, in a Thursday news release, like a playbill, from the Ohio Ethics Commission and the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office, two of the agencies that are investigating possible ethics violations. In open court, one of the prosecutors made sure everyone got credit all the various agencies worked together like the credits rolling on a screen.
At the hearing, Mr. Hicks, in an even, steady voice, told the court that he paid what he thought was market rate for the vacation rental.
He later, outside the courthouse, said he knew nothing of the rare-coin investment.
"I regret very much that I'm standing here today," he said to Columbus Municipal Judge Scott Vanderkarr.
"I certainly never thought that I'd be standing in a courtroom talking about my honor, my integrity after 20 years in public service, in federal government, but I accept responsibility."
At issue was Mr. Noe's business relationship with the state as the father of a $50 million investment in rare coins by the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation, which collects premiums and pays the medical bills and offers compensation for injured workers who make claims.
Mr. Noe pitched the investment to the bureau an executive agency under Mr. Taft's authority and set up a partnership with the state in 1998.
By 2001, Mr. Noe would control $50 million of the state's money.
The bureau almost gave him $25 million more, but the early April investigation by The Blade prompted the bureau to hold off and ultimately change the decision.
Mr. Hicks said that despite his 10-year friendship with Mr. Noe, he did not know the prolific Republican campaign contributor was a partner with the state in the $50 million rare-coin venture.
"I was not aware, until I left the governor's office, that Tom Noe had a coin fund at BWC," he said. Mr. Hicks left his job July 31, 2003, and started a lobbying firm, where Ms. Carroll is currently employed as a lobbyist.
Mr. Hicks clients have included Republican heavyweights he has known for years as one of Mr. Taft's most trusted aides for two decades.
Mr. Hicks would not say whether he played golf with Mr. Noe or if the governor had accepted unreported gifts from the coin dealer.
The Ohio Ethics Commission is looking into whether Mr. Taft allowed Mr. Noe to pay for golf games at the Inverness Club and whether the governor accepted dozens of other free golf outings from other businessmen.
Mr. Hicks said he paid fair market value because he stayed in an efficiency apartment on the Noe Florida property for six of the nine days and only had run of the Noes million-dollar home for three of the days. He paid $500 for the first visit and $300 for the second visit, he said.
State Sen. Marc Dann, a suburban Youngstown Democrat and divorce lawyer who rarely misses opportunities to criticize the coin funds and the Taft administration, said that most plea deals include probation.
Mr. Hicks and Ms. Carroll are still part of the larger, ongoing investigation into the rare-coin funds and Mr. Noe by state and federal authorities and should still feel the heat, he said.
It is usual for such plea deals to include probation, which amounts to the threat of future jail time if future cooperation is not forthcoming, he said.
"I'm really confused as to why they would accept a plea that didn't include probation," he said.
"We know they are significant parts of a major ongoing investigation."
Columbus City Prosecutor Richard Pfeiffer, whose office prosecuted the misdemeanors, said that Columbus Municipal Judge Scott Vanderkarr arrived at the punishment on his own without input from prosecutors. The plea deal, which allowed the two to plead no contest to the charges, stipulated that they could never challenge the ruling and are convictions, he said.
"That was totally up to the judge. We made no recommendation to the judge," he said.
The investigation will continue, he said, into possible ethics violations by other current and former staffers in and out of the governor's office.
Mr. Pfeiffer said that no one from the governor's office, that he knew of, had called to try to lessen or otherwise affect the judge's ruling.
Judge Vanderkarr did not return a call to The Blade. Prosecutor Lara Baker, who handled the case for Mr. Pfeiffer, also did not return calls from The Blade.
The "major investigation" Senator Dann referred to that has combined the rare-coin investment, other unwise investments by the bureau that have lost nearly $300 million, influence peddling, and campaign contributions is operating at the state and federal levels.
Mr. Noe and the coin funds, which were confiscated by the state, are being investigated by a task force of federal and state prosecutors, including Northern District U.S. Attorney Greg White and Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates.
Violations of the state ethics law, such as accepting free rounds of golf, free or reduced vacation rentals, free meals, or other gifts from state vendors without reporting them, are being investigated by a team of local and state officials: Inspector General Tom Charles; David Freel, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, and the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
The complaints filed against Mr. Hicks and Ms. Carroll were signed by Mr. Charles, Mr. Freel, and J.E. Wernecke, a lieutenant with the highway patrol.
The two investigative teams are also working together because of the overarching rare-coin issue that runs through the questions of politics, money, and ethics.
The FBI also has been investigating Mr. Noe over campaign contributions to the Bush-Cheney campaign last year. A federal grand jury has been listening to testimony in Toledo over the last several months.
In a short time, Mr. Noe moved from celebrated GOP party man who was rewarded by Governor Taft with powerful and influential posts on the Ohio Turnpike Commission and the Ohio Board of Regents to political outcast who resigned those posts and was offering prosecutors help last week in the case against Mr. Hicks and Ms. Carroll.
Outside the courthouse, Mr. Hicks said he wondered what had happened to Mr. Noe, his friend of 10 years. Governor Taft, in an earlier statement, had said that Mr. Noe was not the person he thought he was and had misled him.
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