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Published: Tuesday, 5/1/2007

Bernadette Noe: Tom's In the Hole, She's In the Dark

11 AM

Bernadette Noe was so weary this morning, you could see it even over the phone.

I know that many in Toledo are shocked to find out that a guy who simply gave too much money to George Bush is sitting in solitary confinement and [has shared] bunk beds with convicted murderers.

This, from our phone conversation this morning as Bernadette a lawyer in Florida now -- waited to go into a Miami court. Much of what she said was essentially a repeat of Sunday, when we had an off-the-record phone call in which her panic and fearfulness were easily detected.

The subject of all these conversations, of course, was Bernadette s notorious husband, Tom Noe -- GOP rainmaker, one-time friend to George Bush and other high n mighty Republicans, and now a convicted felon serving time for federal campaign finance violations.

(His 18-year sentence on state theft charges for stealing millions through a harebrained rare-coin investment deal he worked out with the Bureau of Workers Comp begins after he finishes his 27-month federal sentence.)

But instead of getting settled into the kind of low-security Club Fed the Noe family expected, Bernadette now reports that Tom is in the hole, locked up in solitary confinement in a South Carolina prison.

Even worse, according to her, is that Noe told her he ll be reassigned from a low-security destination to someplace with considerably more bars on the windows. (Read details here.)

Even before a handcuffed Tom Noe was led off to prison, Bernadette and I had exchanged off-the-record emails that eventually resulted in this story, based on extensive interviews conducted in her Florida Keys home.

She was equally candid this morning. Last week, for example, she actually grew angry with her husband.

I didn t hear from him. Initially, it was this typical wifely, Why didn t you call me? Why didn t he call me?! I was working up to this, Boy am I gonna rip him when he does call, cuz why hasn t he called? But then it turned to panic. By Friday night, I was geared up, waiting for the phone to ring. But I didn t expect to hear what I heard.

She s talking about the frantic phone call Noe finally made, where he sounded rushed and quickly told her couldn t talk long, and that they were putting him into the hole.

Up until that call, Bernadette says, Noe had spoken every single day with her or some other family member.

When the phone got cut off, I was crying. I was just, repeatedly, I love you, I love you, and I was sobbing. And then [the phone] just died.

Since Noe entered the federal prison system, Bernadette has been watchful and, often, suspicious. As the feds move Noe from one to another facility from Lucas County to Milan, to Oklahoma, to Atlanta, and now to South Carolina -- she worries.

It s incomprehensible to her that a white-collar criminal like her husband should have to be behind bars with drug lords and bank robbers.

In Oklahoma, his bunkmate was in for murder. He hit someone in the head with a shovel [That] really threw us for a loop.

Given the political overtones of Noe s criminal charges, Bernadette wonders every now and then how, or if, any of that factors in.

As I ve listened to her concerns over the last few months, I have to admit she hasn t said too much that differs from what other prisoners families say.

More than once, I ve gently suggested to her that what she and Noe are simply coming to terms with is nothing more (or less) than prison. Hey, it s prison. There are no official favors here, no special considerations, no agreement that this or that inmate is somehow entitled to anything beyond prison.

For people like Tom and Bernadette Noe -- who spent most of the last 20 years in the world of Privilege with a Capital P -- that must be one helluva tough reality.

Jon Richardson, Noe s Toledo-based attorney on all the federal business, is sympathetic to Bernadette s line of thinking. But the peripatetic federal journey of Tom Noe is not out of the ordinary, says the lawyer.

It really is just, Welcome to the Bureau of Prisons. I ve called a couple of times [on Bernadatte s request], and they just say, This is ConAir. When we get a plane from here to there, then he ll go. And not a moment before.

So, I asked Mr. Richardson, Noe s trail through the system isn t extraordinary?

No, the trail is not that unusual among federal prisoners. The [bureau of prisons] has its own system, which, to an outside observer, could appear very convoluted. One could wonder why you would go from Michigan to Oklahoma before your would go to South Carolina with a stop in Atlanta but that s their system. And it must have its own internal logic that is not apparent. It s got to seem to [Bernadette] as if this is purposeful.

The prison consultant Bernadette checked in with even told her much the same.

(Yeah, Bernadette said she d never heard of such a thing either, but Noe s Columbus lawyers found this guy named David Novak for her.)

I talked to him last might. He was generous enough with his time to give me a little insight He basically told me to circle the Fourth of July on my calendar and not to look for anything getting any better before [then]. Try explaining that to your children.

What else did the consultant tell her?

He could be in the hole that whole time. He said something about a guy who arrived at a camp and they decided he shouldn t be there, and so they put him in the hole to keep the other inmates safe. And I said, Yeah, you gotta watch those campaign donors! They can be real dangerous!

I asked Bernadette if, after reassurance from Mr. Novak, she still felt her husband s treatment was outside the normal realm, and she said:

I guess the fact that he told me that in his 11 years of consulting, he could think of about a dozen other guys this has happened to, that doesn t make me feel a whole lot better. The truth is probably lying there somewhere in the middle between this happens, guys fall through the cracks, and this is just wrong.

Anyway, she doubts she ll speak again with Mr. Novak.

"He doesn t think there s anything more he can do. It s too far along. He said he was the one who prepared Martha Stewart for prison, and the fact that no one sat us down and prepared us for this is a travesty. What we re experiencing isn t normal.

Did I know, by the way, that a federal inmate sought information about her husband?

No, actually, I did not.

Well, she said, maybe this would help explain her state of mind.

A South Carolina prisoner made a public records request for Tom s public records from the Lucas County Common Pleas Court a long time ago December or January, before we knew he was going to South Carolina. And we thought, that s odd. So I sent someone over to get a copy of the records request. I found the guy, serving a life sentence in a South Carolina prison not too far from Edgefield. For kidnapping. I was freaking out. Why would this prisoner want my husband s stuff? Then when he got sentenced to Edgefield, I panicked. Jon Richardson went to the [U.S.] marshal s office, and they didn t seem to think it was any big deal. So just put all that into my frame of mind. And now, something s gone mysteriously wrong? And we can t talk to him? Maybe you can understand why my panic makes a little more sense.

In the meantime, she stopped writing her husband once a day. Now, she s sending him letters twice daily.

We don t know where to write him. We don t have an address. We re just sending him mail and hoping that he gets it.



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