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Published: Friday, 4/30/2010

Quiz says sting dropped to save face for governor

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - A state investigation yesterday found that members of Gov. Ted Strickland's administration called a stop to a planned contraband sting at the governor's residence early this year to prevent "embarrassment to the boss," not out of safety concerns.

Ohio Inspector General Tom Charles found that Public Safety Director Cathy Collins-Taylor and others engaged in a cover-up over the timing and reasons for the decision.

He found that they had engaged in "wrongful acts and omissions" and forwarded his findings to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien and Columbus City Prosecutor Rick Pfeifer for their review.

"Our investigation determined that the primary reason given for canceling the conveyance operation - that it presented a danger to Gov. Ted Strickland, his wife, Frances, their guests at a dinner party, and troopers stationed at the residence - was a pretext, and that the operation was safe, well-planned and routine," the report reads.

"Due primarily to obfuscation and false statements made by [Department of Public Safety] officials, we may never know the precise reason for the decision, but it is clear that avoiding political embarrassment to the governor was a key factor," the report adds.

The patrol had reason to suspect that a woman outside the mansion planned to place contraband on the grounds for an inmate worker there to pick up and carry back to his prison. The report concludes that the state may never know what the contraband would have been, tobacco or drugs.

The inspector general was generally critical of the operations of the inmate intern program at the governor's residence and a lack of appropriate supervision of the inmates.

The report said the governor's residence in the Columbus suburb of Bexley had been used to conduct a "lucrative tobacco-smuggling business." Tobacco is banned in Ohio prisons.

Mr. Strickland, a Democrat and a former prison psychologist, came to the defense of those working under him at the department and the inmate program.

"I believe that the decisions in this case were made by people acting in good faith," he said. "If decisions were made in order to protect me from some kind of embarrassment, that was unnecessary. I remain confident in Director Cathy Collins-Taylor, [Highway Patrol Superintendent] Col. David Dicken, and [patrol] Lt. Joseph Mannion."

He noted many of the safety and security concerns raised by the report about the inmate program have been addressed. Expanded from six inmates to nine under Mr. Strickland, the program uses inmates to perform gardening, maintenance, and other work at the residence.

"The prisoner intern program has been in existence since Gov. Michael DiSalle initiated it in the 1960s," Mr. Strickland said. "I continue to believe in the importance and relevance of this program and all rehabilitation programs."

The campaign for Mr. Strickland's Republican opponent, former congressman John Kasich, questioned how the governor could express confidence in someone found to have falsely testified under oath.

"For someone who pledged to run an ethical administration, it's deeply troubling that Ted Strickland doesn't place a higher value on honesty from his aides," said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols.

Although the report notes that Ms. Collins-Taylor consulted with Mr. Strickland's legal director, Kent Markus, and the governor's chief of staff, John Haseley, it did not find that they ordered the decision. It also found no evidence that Mr. Strickland had intervened.

Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland), who chairs the Senate Judiciary-Criminal Justice Committee that has been holding hearings on the matter, said the governor should have expressed shock and anger rather than come to the defense of those found to be have been "less than truthful."

"It is apparent that Governor Strickland has chosen protecting his political supporters over protecting Ohio residents," he said.

Ms. Collins-Taylor is likely to face tough Senate questioning when she appears for an upcoming confirmation hearing.

The report claims Ms. Collins-Taylor was dishonest under oath about the timing of the decision, her claim that the decision was made by Mr. Dicken, and why it was made. It noted that e-mails contradict Ms. Collins-Taylor's assertions that the decision to cancel the sting was made a day later than it actually had been and that she wasn't referring to Mr. Strickland when she wrote about "embarrassment to the boss" in an e-mail.

"Terry c had concerns about the level it was being ramped up to also and the embarrassment to the boss," she wrote. "Terry c" referred to Terry Collins, who was then director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He has since retired.

Ms. Collins-Taylor insisted in an interview with investigators that she was referring to the administration in general, not Mr. Strickland in particular. The report concluded that these statements were "absurd. … 'The boss' is a person, not a collective noun," it stated.

The report found Mr. Mannion, the head of the patrol unit protecting the governor, to be the "primary architect" of a false story that the contraband "could have been a gun, a grenade, or a bomb and that careless patrol supervisors and investigators, in their zeal to arrest a minor drug trafficker, were willing to jeopardize the safety of the first family and their guests by allowing a weapon to be thrown over the fence."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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