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Published: Tuesday, 9/20/2005

Taft under fire again for failing to list gifts; 2 more cases investigated

BY JAMES DREW AND STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS After meeting for more than two hours behind a locked door, the Ohio Ethics Commission yesterday said it is investigating Gov. Bob Taft for accepting two additional gifts that he failed to list on his annual financial disclosure statement as required by state law.

Neither commission officials nor a spokesman for Mr. Taft yesterday would reveal what the additional gifts were.

Mr. Taft was convicted Aug. 18 in Franklin County Municipal Court of four first-degree misdemeanor ethics violations for knowingly failing to disclose dozens of golf outings and other gifts valued above $75 that he received from lobbyists and businessmen.

The governor was fined $4,000 and ordered to apologize to Ohioans.

A week later, the governor s office released a list of eight gifts from a box of steaks worth $100 to an $87 stuffed bear that Mr. Taft also failed to disclose on his annual ethics form.

David Freel, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said the agency is reviewing two more sources of gifts that Mr. Taft didn t disclose.

He declined to elaborate, citing the commission s confidential investigative process.

Frustrating is how Mr. Freel described the commission s re-action when learning that even after his conviction, Mr. Taft had not submitted an accurate addendum to his ethics statements.

But the issue is moot because Mr. Freel said the plea agreement that prosecutors signed last month with Mr. Taft says the governor cannot be charged with more counts dating back to when he took office in 1999.

Catherine Turcer, legislative director of Ohio Citizen Action, said Mr. Taft had included a get out of jail free card into the plea agreement he signed with Franklin County and Columbus prosecutors.

Taft had to know more stuff would come out, because he asked for it to be part of his plea agreement. It s a slap in the face of the voters, said Ms. Turcer, whose group has joined with the Republican-leaning Ohio Roundtable in calling for Mr. Taft s resignation.

Ms. Turcer said Mr. Taft s release of additional sources of gifts he failed to disclose showed the dangers of prosecutors agreeing to plea agreements.

By saying whatever we find later is forgiven, they have no idea what they would find, she said.

Mark Rickel, Mr. Taft s press secretary, said the sources of the eight gifts were inadvertently not disclosed and were not identified by the governor s private counsel.

He said he was not aware of two additional sources of gifts that the Ethics Commission is reviewing.

Mr. Rickel rejected the charge that Mr. Taft had gamed the system.

Stephen McIntosh, chief prosecutor for the Columbus city attorney, said if the additional sources of gifts had been disclosed before Mr. Taft s Aug. 18 conviction, it s unlikely they would have led to a different resolution.

Not covered by the plea agreement were any potential felonies and any other violations that didn t involve knowingly failing to disclose the sources of gifts and violating conflict-of-interest laws, Mr. Freel said.

The commission feels very strongly about the steps it took. The commission referred the governor of Ohio for criminal prosecution, involving all the years of no-disclosure. That resulted in a plea bargain, Mr. Freel said.

In other developments yesterday:

• The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the attorney general s office must release to The Blade some state coin-fund records that had been previously withheld from the newspaper. In July, the court ruled 5-2 that The Blade can view records concerning money that can be traced to the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation and coin-fund beneficiaries.

Tom Noe, the former manager of the bureau s $50 million rare-coin investment, is facing multiple state and federal investigations. His attorneys have acknowledged a shortfall of up to $13 million in the investment.

The court, acting on a report from Lawrence Elleman, a Cincinnati lawyer, said in its ruling that the attorney general s office will have an opportunity to propose redactions to the documents before they are released to the public.

The documents must be released to The Blade within 10 days of the court s ruling.

The attorney general s office had resisted releasing some rec ords on the grounds that they were tied to ongoing investigations and were not related to the state s investments.

Obviously we have complied and we will continue to comply with what the court determines to be public record, said Mark Anthony, a spokesman for the attorney general s office.

• The top Democrat in the Statehouse, Rep. Chris Redfern of Catawba Island, said yesterday he would not seek a statewide office next year and planned to run for a fourth term in the legislature.

Despite speculation that Mr. Redfern would run for state auditor in 2006, the House Democratic leader said he would rather remain in his current post with the prospect of a Democratic governor being elected next year.

Having a governor who shares your agenda, and having a governor you could go to who will help forge a strong policy that helps take our state forward that s something that s very intriguing to me, said Mr. Redfern, who was first elected in 1999 and became Democratic leader in 2003. He cannot run for a fifth term in 2008 because of term limits.

Mr. Redfern said his party will field a group of strong candidates next year as Democrats try to chip away at the Republican stronghold in the state.

He said the investment scandal that has gripped state government will present a political opportunity for Democrats.

Will I run statewide at some other date if some opportunity presents itself? Mr. Redfern said. Certainly I will reflect upon that and make that decision.

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



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