COLUMBUS — Tom Noe, who is sitting in prison for stealing $13.7 million from the state’s insurance fund for injured workers, has never been interviewed by the state agency leading the investigation into his wrongdoing, his Toledo attorney said on Thursday.
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Rick Kerger, who is handling Noe’s appeals, said his client is just as interested in reading the final investigative report into the “Coingate” scandal as The Blade is. The newspaper sued the Ohio Inspector General’s office on Wednesday in an attempt to force completion and release of the report nine years after the investigation was launched and six years after the last criminal prosecution.
Inspector General Randall J. Meyer’s office on Thursday referred to the investigation as “ongoing,” and again refused to discuss the case until a final report is issued, and refused to make public the records it has assembled as part of its probe.
“It would be nice if we got the report so that people could read it and reach whatever conclusions they will,” Mr. Kerger said. “As I talked to him [Thursday] afternoon, he would talk to [the state]. But I told him if we make it an issue, we’d better be ready to step up to the plate if they come.”
He said Noe, the former Toledo-area coin dealer and former Lucas County Republican Party chairman, would like to see the final report, although he would have a “jaundiced view of it.” Mr. Kerger said he doesn’t believe the report would affect the outcome of Noe’s latest appeal, which is pending in federal court in Akron.
Mr. Kerger said, to his knowledge, the inspector general’s office has never requested an interview, although it’s possible a request was made through one of Noe’s prior attorneys.
“I guarantee he wants to read it,” he said. “The thing to keep in mind is he knows what happened.”
Mr. Kerger said he doesn’t know what Noe would tell state investigators if they would talk to him.
Noe recently turned down a request from The Blade for an interview. He is serving an 18-year sentence at the minimum-security, former Hocking facility in southern Ohio, which is now part of the Southeastern Correctional Complex. He took $13.7 million from a $50 million investment in rare coins and collectibles placed with him by the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
Responding to a public-records request from The Blade, the Ohio Inspector General’s office said again Thursday there is no final investigative report to provide.
“At this time, the Office of Inspector General has no records that are responsive to your request because records related to an ongoing investigation, that are otherwise not exempted from an exception to the public-records law, are confidential until the report of investigation is issued,” wrote James Manken, the office’s chief legal counsel.
Finish the report
In the absence of a final report, The Blade’s lawsuit asks the Ohio Supreme Court to order the inspector general to complete the report, saying it is clear by the office’s earlier comments that the investigation is not ongoing. State law requires a final report at the completion of an investigation.
The inspector general’s office, however, did comply with a second portion of The Blade’s request from last week, providing a copy of the office’s legally mandated fiduciary review of BWC operations and its investment practices that was commissioned from a private firm in 2006, a year after the parent investigation was launched.
Mr. Meyer, who last served as chief investigator in the state auditor’s office, inherited the investigation when his predecessor, Tom Charles, left in 2011 to become current Gov. John Kasich’s director of public safety. Mr. Charles now works for the private, nonprofit JobsOhio economic development corporation.
Mr. Charles, who headed the multiagency task force investigating Coingate, was originally appointed by former Gov. George Voinovich in the 1990s and was subsequently kept on by Govs. Bob Taft, a Republican, and Ted Strickland, a Democrat.
Reached Thursday, Mr. Strickland said he considers his decision to keep Mr. Charles as Ohio inspector general the “worst decision I made as governor.” The two parted on poor terms after inspector-general investigations of the Strickland administration, including a decision to call off a sting at the governor’s residence targeting contraband smuggling by prison inmates working there.
“I kept him on because he was in the middle of his [Coingate] investigation, and I thought it would be unwise on my part to appoint a different inspector general in the midst of an ongoing investigation,” Mr. Strickland said.
He said he could not recall definitively asking Mr. Charles when a final report would be issued.
“I have wondered for a long time what may be in that investigative material that somebody does not want to make public,” the former governor said. “I cannot understand why it has not been released. … If I was Mr. Noe, I would want it released. He’s serving time in prison, and if there are other individuals who may have in some way been involved, then the public needs to know.”
The Ohio Republican Party, which is not a party to the lawsuit, has opted not to comment on the dispute.
“Commenting on a newspaper’s lawsuit would not align with the utmost respect and seriousness with which we regard the Inspector General’s independence,” Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols wrote in an e-mail.
Can be removed
The inspector general is appointed by the governor, and his term coincides with the governor's. But a governor may remove the inspector general after providing him written notice of reasons for removal and giving him an opportunity to appear to argue why he should not be removed.
Noe previously served time in federal prison for illegally laundering campaign contributions, through several notable local Republicans, to the 2004 re-election campaign of then-President George W. Bush.
Nineteen criminal convictions resulted from the scandal, which stemmed from The Blade’s 2004 and 2005 investigation of Noe, including fraud, mismanagement, and influence peddling at the BWC and throughout state government. Then-Governor Taft in 2005 became the first sitting Ohio governor to be convicted of a crime when he pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor ethics violations for failing to report gifts, including Noe-related golf outings.
The last prosecution associated with the scandal took place in 2007. Mr. Manken’s letter referred to the investigation as “ongoing,” even though the inspector general’s office initially said two years ago it was not going to issue a final report because no one involved in the investigation was left in the office to write it.
The office soon after reversed itself and said it would issue a report, but declined to put a timeline on it and said it would not discuss the matter further.
“There are countless boxes that are now part of the public record,” said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “If the inspector general wishes not to do his job, then he ought to just say so and then I, and other members of the legislature, members of the public, and investigative journalists can just take ownership of the boxes, copy the information, and do the research ourselves.”
The government watchdog group Common Cause separately submitted a records request of its own last week seeking evidence that the investigation is indeed ongoing such as outlines, drafts, status reports, and time records.
In its response, Joshua Beasley, an investigative attorney with the inspector general’s office, repeated that no report exists and some of the supporting documentation requested is exempt from public-records law.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.