COLUMBUS - Former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's decision to give 19 employees more than $80,000 in taxpayer-funded bonuses on his way out the door was illegal, according to an advisory opinion from Attorney General Marc Dann.
Armed with that opinion, Mr. Blackwell's Democratic successor, Jennifer Brunner, said she will seek to force the employees to return the bonuses, which ranged as high as $7,923.
"In this instance, it is difficult to characterize the bonus payments as anything other than a benefit solely for the employees who received them," wrote Mr. Dann. "The bonuses were in essence a gift or gratuity to employees, who were planning to leave the office, for the past performance of their duties - duties for which they already had been compensated.
"The employees provided nothing in return for the payments, and thus it cannot be said that the bonuses were for the primary benefit of the public or to further the efficient operation and management of the offices," he wrote.
Mr. Dann added that Mr. Blackwell, as a state elected officeholder, had no authority to award such bonuses to nonunion employees absent a broader formal policy established by the Department of Administrative Services. Such a policy had been suspended by order by then Gov. Bob Taft in 2003.
Ms. Brunner said she will ask state Auditor Mary Taylor to make an official finding that the bonuses were illegal expenditures as part of an ongoing special audit that Ms. Brunner had already requested.
Mr. Dann noted Ms. Brunner could also seek to directly recover the money and initiate formal collection proceedings through the attorney general's office if the money is not repaid within 45 days. Ms. Brunner said she has no immediate plans to pursue that route.
The $80,000 in bonuses played a small role in Ms. Brunner's successful request from the Ohio Controlling Board for her to tap an additional $2.5 million in business fees to fund her office operations through the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
"I feel as a public official that I have a certain duty of stewardship of public funds ...," she said. "This isn't Ken Blackwell's money. It isn't my money. It belongs to the taxpayers of Ohio.
"Just like Tom Noe [convicted of theft charges related to the Bureau of Workers' Compensation], the state should try to recover the funds. It's unfortunate for the people who received the money," she said.
Mr. Blackwell, a Republican, was in the last of his eight years as secretary of state when he ran unsuccessfully last year for governor.
Before leaving office, he approved the bonuses for 19 employees, all but one of whom did not remain with the office.
Mr. Blackwell's former assistant, Monty Lobb, said he has no plans to give back his bonus.
"Ken has said from the beginning that this is common practice in the public and business sectors,'' he said.
''If you want to apply it retroactively and enforce it selectively, then it goes beyond petty politics to what I consider to be harassment,'' Mr. Lobb said.
First Assistant Attorney General Tom Winters said the office was asked only to review the secretary of state bonuses and did not examine year-end bonuses totaling nearly $90,000 given by House leadership to 59 select employees. The bonuses ranged from $500 to $4,000.
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