COLUMBUS -- A bill inspired by an audit alleging the misspending of public funds by the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority is headed for Gov. John Kasich's desk.
The Ohio House voted 93-1 to rubber-stamp Senate changes to House Bill 326, which would allow prosecution for a first-degree misdemeanor of a public official who illegally spends public funds on a candidate or tax levy campaign. A conviction could carry up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"House Bill 326 holds public officials accountable for abuse of public dollars and violation of Ohio's campaign finance laws," Rep. Jeffrey McClain (R., Upper Sandusky), a bill sponsor, said. "I'm pleased that the legislature worked cooperatively to pass this bill and help protect the public purse."
The bill was supported by state Auditor David Yost after an audit showed TARTA lent $66,885 to Citizens for TARTA, the political committee running a property tax levy campaign in 2007 and 2008. The loan was illegal under existing campaign finance law, but the law didn't provide for criminal penalties.
The audit was also critical of TARTA General Manager James Gee's role as treasurer of that committee. Citizens for TARTA borrowed the money from TARTA. After the state auditor raised a red flag, TARTA made a $49,000 claim to the Ohio Transit Risk Pool.
The political action committee is making monthly payments to reimburse the pool.
TARTA maintained it believed it was within the law in lending the money.
The sole negative vote was cast by Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo). Although critical in the past of other legislative action that he has argued has undermined TARTA, Mr. Ashford said this vote was not about protecting the transit authority.
"It's a feel-good bill," he said. "There's no teeth in it. … It's a first-degree misdemeanor. If they really wanted to send a signal to people who use public money for a levy, they could have made it a felony. But they didn't."