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Published: 8/13/2005

Inquiry could lead to 1st conviction of governor in office

BY JAMES DREW AND STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS Gov. Bob Taft s longtime executive assistant, Jean Booze, is in charge of filling out the governor s annual financial disclosure statements that have become the centerpiece of an investigation into the state s top executive for possible ethics violations.

But when the governor talks about errors and omissions in failing to disclose golf outings on those forms filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission, he is not talking about Ms. Booze, Taft spokesman Orest Holubec told The Blade.

The governor signs the report and is responsible for what is in the reports, Mr. Holubec said yesterday.

A day after the Ohio Ethics Commission indicated it would forward its investigation of Mr. Taft to prosecutors for possible criminal charges, Democrats raised the specter of Mr. Taft becoming the first governor in Ohio history to be convicted of a crime while in office.

The whole issue of golf, because it s easy to understand, has reduced people s confidence in the integrity of government and the ethics of the governor, said state Sen. Marc Dann, a Democrat from suburban Youngstown.

The Ethics Commission investigated the governor s failure to disclose up to 60 outings and other events on his annual financial disclosure statements.

State law requires officeholders to list each source of gifts over $75. It is a first-degree misdemeanor to knowingly file a false ethics form, with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Since 2001, public officials also have been barred from accepting free golf outings with anyone doing business with their agency.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O Brien said yesterday his office had not yet received a referral from the Ethics Commission. He said that could happen next week.

Last week, in response to public records requests, the governor s office released documents showing Mr. Taft had accepted about 25 invitations to play golf since taking office in 1999. The records did not indicate who paid for the outings, which included a round at Toledo s exclusive Inverness Club with former Toledo-area coin dealer Tom Noe in 2001.

Mr. Noe, who convinced the state to invest $50 million in rare-coin funds he controlled, is at the center of a scandal that has led to the conviction of Mr. Taft s former chief of staff, Brian Hicks, on an ethics charge and the resignation of the bureau s CEO-administrator.

Mr. Taft s criminal defense attorney, William Meeks, said last week that the documents on golf outings represent only a portion of the information I am discussing with the Ethics Commission.

Mr. Dann yesterday urged Mr. Taft to disclose all the gifts he has received including those valued at $75 and below and to outline the business interests of those bearing gifts.

Mr. Holubec said Mr. Taft won t do that, but he will disclose what his attorney, Mr. Meeks, referred to as inadvertent omissions when the Ethics Commission process is complete.

House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) said if Mr. Taft is convicted of multiple ethics violations, it will have a dramatic effect on his administration if that administration exists.

He said impeachment would be an option if Mr. Taft failed to disclose dozens of golf outings and other events, is convicted, and won t resign.

Mr. Taft, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits, has said he won t step down. His term runs through 2006.

But Mr. Redfern said he expects the pressure on Mr. Taft would be intense, in part because Lt. Gov. Bruce Johnson would become governor.

Republicans say they are the ones offering real reform in the BWC scandal and everyone knows it s hogwash, empty rhetoric, and backtracking, Mr. Redfern said.

If Bruce Johnson were to ascend, he could offer real reform.

Mr. Johnson, who has not been embroiled in either an ethical investigation or the Bureau of Workers Compensation investment scandal, was appointed lieutenant governor earlier this year by Mr. Taft after Jennette Bradley was named state treasurer.

Yesterday, GOP Chairman Bob Bennett responded to Democratic allegations in a statement, saying: It s unfortunate that the Democrats continue to play political games with the challenges facing the state of Ohio rather than providing substantive leadership to address them.

Yesterday, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who is seeking the Democratic Party s nomination in the 2006 race for governor, endorsed three constitutional amendments that backers want on the Nov. 8 ballot. The proposals would lower the cap on how much donors can give to political candidates, set up a nonpartisan commission to draw legislative and congressional boundaries, and create a nonpartisan elections board to administer elections.

I believe the current scandals and abuse of power we are witnessing are a result of one-party control of state government because legislative and congressional districts are no longer representative of average Ohioans, Mr. Coleman said.

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, a Democrat competing against Mr. Coleman for the party s gubernatorial nomination, is collecting petition signatures to pressure GOP legislative leaders to form a bipartisan commission with subpoena power to investigate the scandal he calls Coingate.

We need those involved to be required to testify publicly, under oath, Mr. Strickland said.

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



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