Taft given law-license reprimand; justices OK ethics sanction over failure to report gifts


COLUMBUS Just days before he leaves office with the lowest approval numbers on record, Gov. Bob Taft yesterday was publicly reprimanded by the Ohio Supreme Court for last year s misdemeanor ethics convictions.

The court voted 6-0 to approve a deal worked out earlier this year with the court s disciplinary counsel, Jonathan Coughlan. Mr. Taft avoids a potential suspension or revocation of the law license he has held for 30 years but placed on inactive status while serving as governor.

The reprimand will remain an indelible mark against his record, and it was immediately added to the court s online attorney directory.

Mr. Taft agreed that he violated an attorney s Code of Professional Responsibility that required him to not engage in any conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer s license to practice law.

A product of the University of Cincinnati s law school, Mr. Taft pleaded no contest in 2005 to four first-degree misdemeanor counts for failing to include golf outings and other gifts worth $75 or more on his annual financial disclosure statements.

The governor is pleased that the matter is concluded and that the court recognized that his reporting error was nothing more than an oversight, Taft spokesman Mark Rickel said.

Mr. Rickel said he did not know whether the governor planned to practice law again.

The great-grandson of a U.S. president, Mr. Taft became the first Ohio governor convicted of a crime while in office. Although convicted of four charges, he told the state ethics commission he failed to report 52 gifts worth $5,682 from 19 people between 1998 and 2004.

Among them was a 2002 golf outing and other gifts from former Toledo-area coin dealer and influential GOP fund-raiser Tom Noe.

Noe is now serving a federal sentence for campaign-finance convictions related to the 2004 presidential election. He also was convicted on state theft charges involving a $50 million investment for the state Bureau of Workers Compensation.

Mr. Taft was fined $4,000 and was ordered to issue an e-mail apology to media outlets and state employees after his misdemeanor convictions.

A public reprimand is the least severe of the sanctions that might be imposed, said Arthur F. Greenbaum, a professor specializing in legal ethics at the Ohio State University Moritz college of law.

A public reprimand plays many functions, but it is clearly embarrassing for any lawyer who receives one, he said. For Governor Taft, the knowledge of a reprimand will be widely noted for the public at large.

In a six-page opinion, the court noted that the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline that reviewed the case was convinced Mr. Taft did not act out of dishonesty or selfishness.

According to an ethics commission investigative report, no evidence suggested that respondent was given gifts as compensation for any act or omission, reads the opinion.

The board, however, noted that the legal profession demands adherence to the highest standards of honesty and integrity, and lawyers who hold public office must be especially scrupulous in this regard.

Although he ultimately reimbursed the sources of the gifts, Mr. Taft was criticized by Democrats for refusing to step down after previously demanding the resignations of underlings who committed similar violations.

The governor s convictions played into the pay-to-play campaign script that helped Democrats recapture a U.S. Senate seat and the Ohio governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer offices in November.

Hopefully, this shuts the chapter on Taft and we can look ahead to turning around Ohio and getting back on track, said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern.

Similarly, Keith Dailey, spokesman for Governor-elect Ted Strickland, said, It s time we stop looking to the past and instead focus on moving our state forward.

While embarrassing, public reprimands are not all that uncommon among state officeholders. Among those judging Mr. Taft yesterday was the only justice with a reprimand on her own record, retiring Justice Alice Robie Resnick of Ottawa Hills, in relation to her drunken driving conviction.

State Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown-area Democrat and incoming attorney general, was publicly reprimanded in 2004 for filing the wrong pleading as a private attorney in a spousal support case.

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a suburban Columbus Republican, was the sole justice to recuse herself from the case.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.