COLUMBUS Trustees appointed by the governor s office to sit on the boards of Ohio s public colleges have contributed more than $500,000 to fund the political ambitions of Gov. Bob Taft, a Blade investigation shows.
About 80 percent of current governor-appointed trustees and their spouses have contributed to political candidates, pouring nearly $3 million into the state s political money machine since 1990 contributing overwhelmingly to Republicans.
Currently, about 250 governor-appointed trustees sit on the boards of Ohio s 13 public universities, 23 community and technical colleges, a medical school, and the Ohio Board of Regents. All of the trustees were appointed by Mr. Taft or his predecessor, George Voinovich.
The Blade examination shows that contributor appointments aren t limited to higher education boards. They extend to a range of state panels, committees, and obscure commissions.
Though critics contend that political generosity is the key to winning a seat on one of Ohio s powerful boards, Mr. Taft s office says appointments are based purely on merits and qualifications.
Generally, the appointments are made to business and community leaders, and it would be a surprise if they weren t active in the political process, said Mark Rickel, a spokesman for Mr. Taft.
Under state law, it is not illegal for trustees to contribute to political candidates, including the governor. In the past year, lawmakers quadrupled contribution limits to $10,000 per election cycle, $20,000 per election year.
Catherine Turcer, the legislative director of the watchdog group, Ohio Citizen Action, said appointments are considered a wonderful perk for contributors.
The people who give in this kind of significant way ... can be rewarded in a variety of ways, Ms. Turcer said. And this is one of them.
The appointment process has allowed for the selection of high-dollar contributors, like Tom Noe. Despite being a college dropout, Mr. Noe was appointed to the Ohio Board of Regents, which oversees the state s colleges and universities.
Mr. Noe also was appointed to the Ohio Turnpike Commission and earlier was given a trustee position at Bowling Green State University. He resigned his appointments last spring amid the controversy surrounding his management of Ohio s defunct $50 million rare-coin investment.
Other appointees include Ann Brennan, a University of Akron trustee, who, along with her husband, has contributed more than $1 million to Ohio political candidates. The list includes Columbus State Community College Trustee William Antonoplos, a Columbus lobbyist who has contributed more than $100,000 on the state level.
The number of trustees serving on the Ohio State University Board of Trustees will increase by three before the end of the year and another three in 2006 because of a change in state law.
The new appointees will join a board that already includes Brian Hicks, Mr. Taft s former chief of staff who was convicted on ethics violations in July for failing to disclose cut-rate Florida vacations provided to him by Mr. Noe. The nine current voting members of OSU s board have contributed more than $171,000 to state candidates since 1990.
The move to expand the board to 15 voting members was explained as necessary to provide more representation for the state s largest university.
That is the epitome of proving that they reward the political contributors, said Paul Tipps, a former lobbyist and Ohio Democratic Party chairman who now runs an organization to study corruption in Columbus. There is no reason for six more trustees at Ohio State. Ohio State didn t ask for six more trustees.
To increase the board of trustees means that many more people are going to get good football seats, Mr. Tipps said.
And a spot on the OSU Board of Trustees or the board of any other public university or college could be someone s ultimate appointment, he said.
I don t think anybody that is close to Ohio state government or Ohio politics would disagree with the fact that an appointment to the Ohio State University Board of Trustees is the single most prestigious appointment in the state of Ohio, Mr. Tipps said. Then you go down [the list] to University of Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Toledo, Akron. ...
When OSU s football team faces Notre Dame in Monday s Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., OSU trustees will be part of the school s official delegation meaning their costs and arrangements will be paid for by the university, an OSU spokesman said.
OSU trustees also sit in the university s box at Ohio Stadium for football games.
Beyond great seats at big games, access and prestige are often among the perks afforded to university trustees.
It is a way to be a mover and a shaker, Ms. Turcer of Ohio Citizen Action said. In many cases, it has to do with prestige in your community and it has to do with networking.
State Sen. Marc Dann, a Democrat from suburban Youngstown and a vocal critic of Republican leadership in Columbus, said the appointments open up opportunities for people to expand their business networks.
They open up the doors to be able to do business, said Mr. Dann, a candidate for attorney general who has received $425 in contributions from trustees. Certainly it was prestigious enough that Brian Hicks wanted to be appointed to the Ohio State board right out of the governor s office.
For Mr. Noe, appointments to state boards meant access to potential clients to build his Toledo-area rare-coin business. It also meant a bond with the governors who appointed him.
Memos released this year by the governor s office show that Mr. Noe gave input on potential appointments to Mr. Taft and his aides.
Mr. Noe, like many other governor-appointed trustees, contributed heavily to the men who selected him.
The six leading recipients of trustee contributions have all either served as governor or are seeking the state s top office. All of them have had multiple campaigns for statewide office since 1990.
Mr. Taft and Mr. Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, account for more than $785,000 in contributions from trustees, while the GOP s 2006 gubernatorial front-runners State Auditor Betty Montgomery, Attorney General Jim Petro, and Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell account for more than $400,000 in donations since 1990.
Democrat Lee Fisher, who served as attorney general and ran unsuccessfully for governor, also collected more than $135,000 from the trustees.
Serving on a public university s board might seem impressive to outsiders, but several current trustees said their positions lack the cachet to require substantial political donations.
Spending 20 hours each month in an unpaid government post does little for their egos, say some trustees. They consider it an opportunity to better the schools and local economy.
Bonny Huffman, a coal company executive who has given more than $65,000 to political candidates, considers her service on the Rio Grande Community College board a labor of love and nothing else.
There is no prestige associated with it, she said.
Watching students celebrate at graduation is the best moment in a largely thankless job, for H.C. Buck Niehoff, a University of Cincinnati trustee.
Here in Cincinnati, we don t get a lot of recognition unless we fire our basketball coach, he said. And that s not good recognition.
Before his 2002 appointment to the board, Mr. Niehoff, a University of Cincinnati law school alumnus, worked on the school s capital campaign and established a lecture series for its professors. He owns the downtown condominium where the university s president lives.
Mr. Niehoff, who has contributed more than $62,000 to state candidates, is an active Republican donor, but he also supports cancer research, urban revitalization, and arts organizations.
That s the kind of person I think you want on the board of trustees someone who is really involved with the community, he said.
After Mr. Taft s election in 1998, Richard Stansley, Jr., received a phone call from the governor s office asking if he would like to become a trustee for the University of Toledo. Along with family members, Mr. Stansley has given more than $80,000 to state political candidates.
Mr. Stansley said political contributions do not buy seats on university boards, although being a prominent fund-raiser certainly helps.
In my case, I was a substantial donor to the governor, he said. There were people I knew that were in the administration. It probably provided a certain level of comfort for them to know who they were appointing.
In many cases, individuals who give lavishly to politicians also carried impressive credentials that could merit a board seat.
Before Richard W. Pogue, a longtime Cleveland-based attorney, joined the University of Akron s board last year, he served on the board for Case Western Reserve University, a private institution, and chaired a 2003 commission that evaluated Ohio s public colleges.
He said those experiences were far more important to Mr. Taft than his campaign donations.
My overall impression is that he s been far more interested in the quality of his appointees than his predecessors, said Mr. Pogue, who has contributed more than $179,000 to Ohio political candidates.
Trustees appointed by the governor s office are responsible for setting policy that has ramifications for students, communities, and the future of the state especially when it comes to the fighting for state funding.
Mr. Tipps believes partisan politics should be removed from the appointments process for the benefit of Ohio s schools. He envisions a system in which the governor appoints half the trustees, and the senior official from the opposing party selects the rest.
As time gets worse, the universities have suffered tremendously in financing and part of the reason is because they lack a constituency that goes to bat for them, Mr. Tipps said. It says nothing bad about the trustees; it speaks ill of the system.
Ms. Turcer said there isn t a magic bullet for removing politics from the trustee appointment process. She said a committee to review applicants for trustee positions and determine whether a candidate is fit to serve could be beneficial.
We need to make sure that trustees are ... responsible and not picked just because they are friends of the governor, Ms. Turcer said, adding that it makes sense for the governor to choose the trustees.
Beyond seats on university and college boards, the governor s office appoints hundreds of people each year to serve on various commissions and panels.
For example, since taking office in 1999, Mr. Taft has appointed 13 Ohioans to the State Dental Board.
Of those appointments, 12 have contributed more than $47,000 to political candidates since 1990, including nearly $28,000 to Mr. Taft s campaigns.
And then there s the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. All of the members appointed by Mr. Taft to the board have contributed to political candidates. Combined, the seven-member board has given more than $31,000 to political candidates, including about $4,800 to Mr. Taft.
There seems to be nothing too small to sell in this administration for campaign contributions, Mr. Dann said.
Blade Columbus Bureau Chief James Drew and staff writer Joshua Boak contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Eder at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.