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Published: Thursday, 11/3/2005

Conduits unsure of a problem, says lawyer

BY MIKE WILKINSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When Tom Noe invited some people to a fund-raiser for President Bush with the promise of reimbursement, some were suspicious but took his money anyway, their attorney said yesterday.

Some thought it smelled a little bit, Bill Connelly said yesterday. But they didn t inquire further.

Mr. Connelly, whose clients in the matter include Toledo City Councilman Betty Shultz, Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber, and former Toledo mayor Donna Owens, said others had no idea it was a problem and were flabbergasted to learn he was under investigation.

Mr. Connelly also represents Ms. Thurber s husband, Sam, and jeweler Jeffrey Mann. All five of his clients testified before the federal grand jury investigating Mr. Noe.

He declined to say which of his clients thought it could be a problem and which did not. He said they were all told they would not be prosecuted if they cooperated with the federal investigation.

Mr. Noe was indicted last week on three felony counts related to the alleged laundering of $45,400 into the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Prosecutors allege Mr. Noe gave 24 people money to funnel into the campaign.

Mr. Noe pleaded not guilty to all charges during a brief hearing in U.S. District Court in Toledo on Monday. Jon Richardson, one of his Toledo attorneys, declined to respond to Mr. Connelly s statements.

Until Mr. Connelly s acknowledgment, it was unclear who any of the alleged conduits are. Almost all of the people who appeared before the grand jury have declined comment.

Each of Mr. Connelly s clients gave $2,000 to the campaign and attended the Oct. 30, 2003, Bush-Cheney fund-raiser in Columbus except the Thurbers. They gave $1,950 each. Mr. Mann s wife also gave $2,000.

According to prosecutors, Mr. Noe gave most of the conduits less than $2,000 and each made up the difference with his or her own money. Mr. Connelly said his clients thought they were paying for the actual cost of the luncheon itself.

An estimated 700 people attended the fund-raiser, which generated $1.4 million for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

By the end of the campaign, Mr. Noe had been recognized as a Pioneer for the Bush-Cheney campaign, raising at least $100,000. Mr. Connelly said his clients were unaware of Mr. Noe s fund-raising goal. They were absolutely flabbergasted to learn it was part of his effort to be a Pioneer, he said.

Mr. Noe told Mr. Connelly s clients he would reimburse them after the fund-raiser. But prosecutors say all of the checks to the conduits were written in the week before the event. It is unclear if they were cashed before the event.

Although his clients have told him they thought they were being comped or given complimentary tickets, Mr. Connelly said that in hindsight his clients realize that accepting the money was wrong.

They just weren t thinking this was what he was trying to circumvent, Mr. Connelly said.

Next week, voters will decide whether to keep Ms. Shultz on City Council. She is running for an at-large council seat and hopes to win and become the longest-serving female politician in state history.

One of her opponents has pressed her to say what role she played in the case, and she said she is asked about the matter frequently.

But she has repeatedly declined to talk. When told yesterday that her attorney had identified her as a conduit and commented on the case, she said, But he didn t testify before the grand jury, and I did.

Additional problems loom for Ms. Shultz, Ms. Thurber, and Ms. Owens. As public officials Ms. Owens was on the Ohio Industrial Commission at the time they had to file financial disclosure forms with the Ohio Ethics Commission. None disclosed Mr. Noe as a source of income.

Those [issues] have to be addressed, Mr. Connelly said.

He referred the women to Columbus attorney H. Ritchey Hollenbaugh, who specializes in issues before the Ethics Commission.

Since the federal investigation changed their opinion on the nature of the money, Mr. Connelly said his clients decided that they might as well go down and tell the Ethics Commission that at the time I didn t think this was a reportable event, but now I do.

With only a few days before the Toledo municipal elections, it s unclear if there will be a resolution in Ms. Shultz s case. David Freel, executive director of the Ethics Commission, declined to comment on the matter.

Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University, served on the Ethics Commission from 1998 to 2004. He said the commission tried to stay with normal procedure when investigations wrapped up near an election.

Certainly, the commission members were sensitive to how the Ethics Commission could be used by others. We recognized that anything you did either to delay something or to rush it had consequences, he said. What we said was when something was ready to go forward, you should. The best advice was to follow your normal procedure and due diligence.

It appears that most of the people who took money from Mr. Noe will avoid prosecution. Prosecutors said it is Justice Department policy not to prosecute low-level participants in a conduit scheme if they help prosecutors convict the person or persons who orchestrate the scheme.

In addition to Mr. Connelly s clients, the following donors testified:

• Sally and Allison Perz. Sally Perz is a former state representative.

Her daughter Allison works for local charter schools. Both they and their husbands attended the fund-raiser.

• Joe Kidd, a former executive director of the Lucas County Board of Elections.

• Doug Talbott, a Taft aide who became a Columbus lobbyist. Mr. Talbott s wife, Susan, also attended the fund-raiser.

• Susan Metzger, former executive assistant at Mr. Noe s Monclova Township coin shop.

• Mike Boyle, a local businessman and the son of longtime Democratic power broker Bill Boyle.

• Paul Swy and Bart Kulish, who both work at a Bedford Township manufacturing firm where Joe Restivo is an executive. Mr. Restivo is Mr. Noe s brother-in-law.

However, a number of people who received the money did not testify. It is unclear if they will be prosecuted.

Attorneys for others who testified before the grand jury declined yesterday to say what role their clients had in the case.

Blade Columbus Bureau Chief James Drew contributed to this report.

Contact Mike Wilkinson at:mwilkinson@theblade.com or 419-724-6104.



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