COLUMBUS -- As Gov. Bob Taft yesterday became Ohio's first governor to be convicted on criminal charges, he apologized for embarrassing the state he's sworn to lead, but dismissed the ethical misdeeds as an inadvertent mistake.
Under state law, Mr. Taft could have been sent to jail, but a Democratic judge instead ordered the embattled governor to pay a $4,000 fine and issue a written apology to all Ohioans from the shores of Lake Erie to the banks of the Ohio River.
Facing Judge Mark S. Froehlich of Franklin County Municipal Court yesterday morning, Mr. Taft, with his wife, Hope, sitting behind him, apologized for violating the state's ethics laws by failing to file complete financial disclosure statements. Visibly shaken in the courtroom, Mr. Taft, pleaded no contest to four first-degree misdemeanor ethics violations, which carried maximum sentences of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine each.
"As governor, I have made it clear that I expect all public employees to follow both the letter and the spirit of the ethics law and have demanded no less from myself," he told the judge. "I have personally failed to live up to those expectations, as well as the expectations of the public, and I am disappointed in myself."
Prosecutors on Wednesday charged the governor with breaking state law by knowingly failing to disclose dozens of golf outings and gifts he received from lobbyists and businessmen. State officeholders are required under state law to disclose the source of gifts valued above $75.
As Judge Froehlich sentenced Mr. Taft, he scolded the governor and reminded him that he has a responsibility to set an example for all citizens.
"I want them to know that you are sorry for what you've done," the judge lectured Mr. Taft in front of a packed courtroom yesterday morning, as he instructed the governor to make a formal apology to Ohioans.
Even before yesterday's court proceedings, the Taft administration was already immersed in a scandal stemming from the state's failed $50 million rare-coin venture with Republican fund-raiser Tom Noe, who is facing multiple investigations and allegations that he stole millions of dollars.
The governor's initial defense of the coin dealer after The Blade first reported on the coin fund on April 3, coupled with his own ethical lapses, has challenged not only his political future, but has put a stain on his own legacy, critics said. Mr. Taft comes from a long line of political leaders as the son and grandson of U.S. senators and the great-grandson of William Howard Taft, the only U.S. president who also served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Laws 'apply to all'
As he sentenced Mr. Taft, Judge Froehlich said the government is based on laws which "apply to all of us regardless of position, rank, privilege, elected or not elected."
"The message is simple and clear: No one is above the law in the state of Ohio, even the governor can be charged and convicted of a criminal offense," he said.
Judge Froehlich said his decision not to order jail time shouldn't detract from the seriousness of the charges.
"The court of public opinion and the court of history have already and will continue in the future to impose a far greater punishment than what I plan to impose on you today," the judge said.
Immediately after his hearing, Mr. Taft said he will finish out his term, and for the first time, he answered questions about the 52 golf outings and other gifts he's refused to discuss during a two-month investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission.
While Mr. Taft maintained that he initiated the process that led to the charges, he acknowledged yesterday that questions in early April about Mr. Noe and his rare-coin investment with the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation made the governor re-examine his own ethics filings.
As Mr. Taft pledged to continue leading the state, his political future appeared in question yesterday in light of the charges.
Political opponents are weighing whether to call for his resignation or impeachment proceedings, and even some closely aligned with the Republican governor's political party questioned his ability to govern in light of the conviction.
A call to resign
The Ohio Roundtable, a Cleveland-based organization that promotes several Republican causes, yesterday called on Mr. Taft to resign.
As the first seated governor since 1803 to be convicted of a crime in office, resignation is the only honorable option left for Bob Taft, said David Zanotti, president of the Ohio Roundtable.
Mr. Taft did not publicly acknowledge the problems with his disclosure statements until The Blade inquired whether the governor needed to file an addendum to those statements.
"When we started to read reports in the newspapers about the Noe investigations and the Noe gifts, I remembered that I played golf with Tom Noe, and so I began to make an inquiry into my financial disclosure forms and my calendar and my financial records and, frankly, I was very surprised with what I found," Mr. Taft said during yesterday's news conference.
"We paid for some events. We didn't pay for others that we should have paid for, and obviously I failed to institute a system in our office to adequately record, evaluate, and report those golf outings and social events. I take full responsibility," the governor said.
Mr. Taft yesterday stuck by his earlier statements that he had no knowledge of Mr. Noe's rare-coin contract until The Blade's April 3 story. In an April 7 interview with The Blade, Mr. Taft defended Mr. Noe, a generous GOP contributor.
"He appeared to me to be a businessman who was in a business where he would not have dealings with the state of Ohio," Mr. Taft said yesterday.
"He's someone I've known for 20 years, but we didn't know who Tom Noe really was," said Mr. Taft, who appointed Mr. Noe to the Ohio Turnpike Commission and reappointed him to the Ohio Board of Regents.
He said Mr. Noe "made a great effort to conceal" the fact that he had a state contract.
"[He] didn't report to the Ethics Commission, didn't file as a lobbyist, so it's been very tough, you know, to see when a friend turns out to be not who you think he is," he said.
When asked what he discussed with Mr. Noe on the golf course, Mr. Taft said; "We talked about family. We talked about friends. We probably talked about Lucas County politics, things like that."
Bill Wilkinson, Mr. Noe's lawyer, said that the governor's statement about his client's concealing his relationship with the bureau was deceitful.
Calling the statement "absurd," Mr. Wilkinson said that the Toledo-area coin dealer underwent a public process to become a bureau fund manager in 1998 and also shared his association with the coin funds on yearly ethics filings.
"He either knew or didn't want to know," Mr. Wilkinson said, referring to the governor.
Mark Rickel, Mr. Taft's press secretary, said the governor spent part of the day following his court appearance calling Ohio newspaper editors and publishers to apologize. He also spoke with Ohio GOP leaders, including legislators.
Yesterday, Mr. Taft called The Blade to reiterate his public apology for our failures and to once again take full responsibility. We did a very bad job keeping track of gifts that should have been logged in.
Noe' fooled everybody'
Mr. Taft said Mr. Noe "fooled everybody."
"When this Noe stuff came out, it made me think back that I had [played golf] with him and we should check the records. I was shocked by what we found; a significant number hadn't been paid for," he said.
"He added, I give full credit to The Blade for unearthing this whole thing. We believed the bureau was well run, but the more we found out, the worse it was. The investment fund was grossly mismanaged."
Referring to his management review team's work at the bureau, Mr. Taft added: "We're turning the BWC upside down."
The governor's statement apologizing for failing to disclose golf outings and other gifts valued at more than $75 was sent to media outlets throughout the state, complying with part of the judge's order. Mr. Rickel said the governor's office was preparing to send e-mails to state workers containing his apology.
After Mr. Taft's court appearance, city prosecutors released the Ethics Commission's investigative report on Mr. Taft. The report notes that during an Aug. 11 executive session, the commission unanimously instructed staff to refer the report "with a recommendation that Governor Taft be charged with knowingly filing false disclosure statements with the Ethics Commission by repeatedly failing to disclose $5,682 in gifts from 19 separate sources from 1998 through 2004."
David Freel, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, said that the charges against the governor had little to do with golf.
"This isn't about golf," he said. "This is about who pays whether it's payment for gifts, or payment for income, or payment for loans or debts or exclusive vacations in sites. This is about the obligation of public officials to disclose to the public who is paying for them. So the public, and you as the media and [the inspector general] and the Ethics Commission can look at conflicts of interest independent of the public official."
The Ethics Commission's investigative report lists several sections of relevant ethics law, including the prohibition on public officials or employees from soliciting or accepting anything of value "that is of such a character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the public official or employee with respect to that person's duties."
In a section that lists those who paid for Mr. Taft's golf outings not included on the governor's ethics forms, the Ethics Commission states: "Some of these individual sources, as well as persons who were also present during the events, were persons doing, seeking to do business with, regulated by, or otherwise interested in matters before the State of Ohio."
The list included Mr. Noe, who ran the state-funded coin venture and golfed with the governor three times at Toledo's exclusive Inverness Club.
According to the governor, Mr. Noe footed the bill for a July 26, 2002, outing with the governor that included Toledo-area accountant Jim King and Mike Miller, president of Inverness and the Toledo Mud Hens board. The cost, billed to Mr. Noe's account at Inverness, was $377.60 or $94.90 per person, according to the Ethics Commission.
On occasions in 2001 and 2003, Mike Wilcox gave Mr. Taft an $80 round of golf at Inverness. Mr. Noe joined both outings. State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) participated in one round, and Bob Sebo, a Bowling Green State University trustee and member of the board of directors of Paychex, Inc. partook in the other.
Even though Mr. Taft repeatedly said yesterday that he planned to serve out his term as governor, which ends next year, a number of politicians, key interests, and political insiders questioned his ability to lead.
A spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party said yesterday "it's really up to Bob Taft and his own conscience" whether he resigns.
"There are enough Republicans calling for his resignation that Democrats don't have to," said Gabrielle Williamson, a Democratic party spokesman. "It really doesn't matter that he resigns. Whoever will fill his position is part of the same administration, the same circle of corruption."
Mr. Zanotti, the president of the Ohio Roundtable, sent a letter to Mr. Taft yesterday, writing that the Ohio Constitution states the governor may be impeached for any misdemeanor in office.
"It is quite clear that today's convictions fall within the original intent of the clear language of the Constitution," wrote Mr. Zanotti, who sent copies of his letter to GOP legislative leaders and Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.
House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) said he did not want the governor to resign and said he would not ask for impeachment proceedings. He has heard from his constituents on the issue and they wanted an apology and remorse from the governor, he said yesterday.
Mr. Husted said he didn't know if the golf games were improper beyond the governor's failure to report them as gifts.
John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron, said the apology that Mr. Taft made to Ohioans was very important.
He still expects intense pressure for Mr. Taft to step down, especially if there are more developments in the scandal.
"This is not only embarrassing to him, but it's embarrassing to the rest of us in the state of Ohio," said Mr. Green. "I never thought he would resign. If you think of the few other governors in other states who have been forced to resign, it's always over a felony or allegation of a felony."
Some Republicans might want the governor to step down for the good of the party before voters go to the polls for a competitive election next year, he said. At the same time, Democrats may not want the governor to resign because they "probably can reap an advantage to the governor staying in office."
With the governor's political options muddled in the near term, it's unclear whether Mr. Taft can repair the damage to his family's name in the final months of his administration, Mr. Green said.
He said, "The governor already faces serious problems."
Blade staff writers Christopher D. Kirkpatrick and Joshua Boak contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Eder at:email@example.com or 614-221-0496.