COLUMBUS — The Democratic gubernatorial candidate, casting himself as a victim of a political smear, sought on Friday to explain police records from two years ago that showed him in an otherwise empty parking lot at 4:30 a.m. with a woman who isn’t his wife.
Ed FitzGerald blamed Republicans for what he called an “unwarranted and cheap political attack” by the team of incumbent Republican Gov. John Kasich, his opponent in the fall. FitzGerald, trailing in polls and struggling to find traction, found himself distracted on a day he had intended to tout the endorsement of Ohio’s Fraternal Order of Police.
Kasich’s campaign declined to comment.
Police did not cite FitzGerald or his passenger after responding to a call about a suspicious vehicle.
Sitting next to the Ohio FOP president, FitzGerald told reporters the woman in question was a friend and nothing inappropriate happened.
FitzGerald and his wife, Shannon FitzGerald, who have been married for about 23 years and have four children, issued a statement saying they were disappointed at personal attacks against their family.
“This is not something where I had to go to my wife and say, ‘Look, we’ve got some big crisis here,‘” he said. “These are family friends. She knows everybody involved.”
FitzGerald canceled planned events Friday associated with his endorsement from the police group and sought to answer reporters’ questions about a report based on police records published by a northeastern Ohio news organization.
The Northeast Ohio Media Group first reported details of the 2012 police records, showing FitzGerald with the woman at a vacant suburban Cleveland parking lot.
FitzGerald, who as Cuyahoga County executive is the leader of the state’s most populous county, said the woman, Joanne Grehan, was part of an Irish delegation that had been visiting the area. After several receptions and dinner with the group, he had been asked to drive her back to her hotel while others in the delegation went in another vehicle. He said the two vehicles got separated and he and Grehan stopped to map the route.
“I ended up pulling over to a parking lot to try to get our bearings, to try to get a hold of the rest of the members of (our) party,” he said.
He said a Westlake police officer approached the vehicle and talked to both of them.
“And nothing else happened,” FitzGerald said. “It didn’t even amount to a situation that resulted in a traffic ticket — not even a minor traffic ticket.”
The report from Westlake police says the officer found FitzGerald and a friend “just talking.”
FitzGerald’s campaign released a statement from members of an Irish delegation, who called the encounter an “innocuous incident.”
According to a statement by Grehan and another delegate, Peter Hynes, FitzGerald proceeded to the hotel and dropped her off.
“We are outraged and disgusted to find our names being drawn into what is clearly a controversy fabricated with political motivation, and we confirm that there is absolutely no basis for the unfounded speculation and nasty innuendo which surrounds reporting of this incident,” the delegates said.
Using a public records request, FitzGerald said his campaign obtained emails showing the Republican Governors Association’s involvement in obtaining the police report. The GOP organization declined to comment on the records.
FitzGerald also suggested the Westlake mayor, a Republican, misused public resources for political purposes in the city’s handling of the GOP’s request.
Mayor Dennis Clough has denied FitzGerald’s claims that he was involved in leaking reports to FitzGerald’s political opponents. He has said the police department answered a public records request like it would for anyone else.
With the FitzGerald endorsement hanging, Ohio FOP president Jay McDonald said he talked to the Westlake police officer, who confirmed nothing inappropriate happened.
The news comes in the week new poll numbers show FitzGerald has gained little ground against Kasich. A Quinnipiac University poll shows Kasich ahead of FitzGerald 48 percent to 36 percent in the key swing state.
The July 24-Monday survey noted many Ohio residents still don’t know much about FitzGerald, a former FBI agent who has called himself a reformer who helped restore integrity to a scandal-ridden county government. The survey, of 1,366 likely voters, had a margin of error of about 3 percentage points.