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Tom Troy

Education concerns take backseat to political considerations

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Could Lucas County once again be ground zero for a scandal that defeats Republican candidates?

In 2006, the Coingate scandal, broken by The Blade, proved toxic to Republicans running for statewide office.

Read last week’s column by Tom Troy

Republicans fell like the grass under the first lawnmower of spring that year. Democrats came out of the 2006 election having picked up a U.S. Senate seat, governor, attorney general, treasurer, and secretary of state, and added seats in the state House of Representatives.

That was in part because Tom Noe, a former Lucas County GOP chairman and former state chairman, was facing theft charges of stealing $13.7 million from the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation.

Noe had also roped in about 19 Republican friends, including the highest-profile women Republicans in Lucas County, to violate campaign finance laws by taking money from him and making contributions to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

Even Gov. Bob Taft got slimed, forced to plead no contest to ethics misdemeanors for accepting a free round of golf without declaring it as a gift.

This year’s scandal has to do with the excessive milking of the state’s school funding revenue for the benefit of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school while its founder and main vendor, Bill Lager, was making fat campaign contributions to Republican elected officials.

ECOT is sponsored as a charter school in Lucas County by the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, which gets an administrative fee from ECOT, or did.

One of the Republicans who benefited from Mr. Lager’s campaign contributions was state Auditor David Yost, who is now running for attorney general.

His opponent, Democrat Steve Dettelbach, contends that Mr. Yost had an obvious conflict of interest in a buddy-buddy relationship with Mr. Lager that included accepting campaign contributions, accepting opportunities to give speeches at the school, and giving ECOT awards for their accounting practices.

A former U.S. attorney in Cleveland, Mr. Dettelbach accuses Mr. Yost of allowing the evidence offered by a recent whistleblower to go cold by holding that information for an audit, rather than turning it over to criminal investigators. The whistleblower said that ECOT adopted a software program to exaggerate ECOT’s enrollment.

“The fact that the auditor goes to their graduation, takes a plaque, presents them an award while they’re cheating the people of Ohio, the fact that he’s trying to explain that rather than apologize for it is really incredible,” Mr. Dettelbach told The Blade.

“I’m very troubled by this and very worried that it creates the self-fulfilling prophecy that no one at ECOT is going to be held responsible. This kind of delay is like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Mr. Dettelbach said.

How much of this really sticks to Mr. Yost, the one guy who tends to be most associated with ECOT in stories, is an open question right now.

Mr. Yost, a former Delaware County prosecutor, has been state auditor for two terms. Now he and Mr. Dettelbach are running to replace term-limited Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine.

ECOT has closed up, shut down by the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West when it could no longer pay its bills, sending 12,000 students scrambling to other schools to finish their school year.

Coingate was a fully mature scandal by this point in the 2006 election, with some people already convicted of ethics violations and Noe just months away from being convicted and sentenced for theft from the Bureau of Workers Compensation.

Mr. Yost’s basic explanation for ECOT is that he didn’t create the laws that allowed ECOT to claim what turned out to be inflated per-pupil reimbursement from the state. There’s also the largely untold story of how the state’s funding rule changed midstream in 2016, catching ECOT and other e-schools unawares, possibly in an unfair way to ECOT.

The essential problem was that ECOT’s funding mechanism was the same as that of bricks-and-mortar schools. Ohio’s lawmakers in 2003 should have drafted their legislation allowing online charter schools to recognize that an online school would not need the same reimbursement that a regular school would have. Your lawmakers were not operating under common sense thinking at the time. Something else was influencing their judgment.

Campaign contributions from Bill Lager perhaps?

Mr. Yost’s answers to ECOT-related questions are that he doesn’t do favors for campaign contributions.

“I’ve never done a favor in my official duties,” Mr. Yost said. “That dog won’t hunt.”

He says that he was bound to audit ECOT based on the law as it applied to ECOT, and that ECOT won “excellence in accounting” awards from his office because their accounting documentation complied with the law and earned the recognition.

Mr. Yost has also pointed out that he proposed legislation to reform how online charter schools were funded, though it was not approved by the legislature.

As to letting a potential fraud case go cold by burying the information in an audit, Mr. Yost said his office has criminal investigators on staff who will seek criminal indictment if called for. Mr. Yost’s latest audit of ECOT is due to be released next week.

“My opponent’s assertions are 100 percent wrong,” Mr. Yost said.

ECOT doesn’t quite live up to Coingate as a scandal because there has been no finding of criminal wrongdoing.

There’s lots of evidence, though, that education policy played second fiddle, at best, to political considerations.

Contact Tom Troy at tomtroy@theblade.com419-724-6058, or on Twitter @TomFTroy.

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