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Published: 5/19/2010

Ohio safety director on offensive on eve of hearing

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - On the eve of her Senate confirmation hearing, Ohio Public Safety Director Cathy Collins-Taylor is fighting back against an inspector general's report accusing her of lying under oath about an aborted highway patrol sting planned at the Governor's Residence.

In his late April report, Inspector General Tom Charles found that Ms. Collins-Taylor, whose agency includes the highway patrol, made the decision to call off a January sting to expose a plot to drop contraband, believed to be either tobacco or drugs, at the mansion for an inmate employee there to carry back to his prison.

The report accuses her and others of engaging in a cover-up to prevent "embarrassment to the boss," Gov. Ted Strickland.

Ms. Collins-Taylor is to testify today and tomorrow before the Senate Judiciary-Criminal Justice Committee. In advance, the public safety department has accused Ohio Inspector General Charles of jumping to preconceived conclusions not supported by the evidence and for being unduly influenced by having been a 30-year member of the patrol and by his wife having been interviewed for the job that went to Ms. Collins-Taylor.

The full, Republican-controlled Senate will decide whether to confirm Ms. Collins-Taylor for the job that she has held for months. An error in the Strickland administration caused a delay in submission of her papers to the Senate, and by that time controversy over the aborted sting specifically and accusations of civilian interference in patrol investigations in general erupted.

Despite the controversy, the Strickland administration is hoping it can get at least 17 votes - all 12 Democrats and at least 5 Republicans - to vote to confirm.

Ms. Collins-Taylor had questioned the wisdom of the sting operation, particularly if the contraband in question were tobacco. Tobacco is banned from Ohio prisons, but conveying it into a prison or leaving it on Governor's Residence grounds is not a crime.

A decision was made to warn off the woman whom the inmate asked to drop the unidentified item at the mansion. Ms. Collins-Taylor said the decision came from David Dicken, highway patrol superintendent, not from her.

Confirmation votes are usually routine in the Senate. But Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) said he expects this one to come to a debate on the floor.

"I think the chairman and the members of the committee have worked very hard to delve through that very carefully,'' he said. "Certainly, it's our intention to give her the opportunity to articulate what she wants to."

Senate Democratic Leader Capri Cafaro of Hubbard urged the committee yesterday to give Ms. Collins-Taylor a fair, respectful hearing without the "disappointing lack of decorum" that has accompanied recent hearings examining the decisions surrounding the aborted sting and the alleged politicization of the patrol by the administration.

It is clear, however, that Democrats plan to put Mr. Charles under the microscope.

"The hearings need to clarify how the inspector general reached his conclusions and how members of his staff conducted the investigation," Ms. Cafaro said.

The criticism of Mr. Charles marks a sharp turnaround of position for the Strickland administration.

Shortly after taking office in 2007, the Democratic governor said he was proud to reappoint him.

"Thomas understands that integrity and accountability play critical roles in our state government," Mr. Strickland said at the time. "He has played an absolutely essential role in beginning the process of restoring Ohioans' trust and faith in their government."

He continued on that note a year later when Democrats and Republicans joined forces to give Mr. Charles unprecedented temporary authority to investigate then Attorney General Marc Dann's office just as he was resigning in disgrace.

Rep. Dennis Murray (D., Sandusky) introduced a bill yesterday to require the inspector general to hand over the reins of an investigation to a deputy whenever he or a close family member has a potential stake in the outcome.

He stressed that he does not have a personal opinion on whether Mr. Charles' investigation into the Governor's Residence sting was biased.

The Senate committee is also expected to hear today from Sen. David Goodman (R., Bexley), whose district includes the neighborhood where the governor's mansion is situated.

He has introduced a bill to crack down on the inmate work program that Mr. Strickland has defended but that Mr. Charles has criticized for lacking sufficient security.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.



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