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Published: Sunday, 7/31/2005

Scandal escalates, yet Taft stays mum

Gov. Bob Taft has promised a full accounting of the free golf he received but failed to report on disclosure forms. Gov. Bob Taft has promised a full accounting of the free golf he received but failed to report on disclosure forms.

COLUMBUS - Ohio's most important political leader has become its most muted on the ethical problems tarnishing his administration and his legacy.

Gov. Bob Taft offers language - part political speak and part Orwell - when he takes credit for an ongoing ethics investigation into numerous free golf games he took over the years but at the same time is unwilling to offer details or even give a general outline of the subject.

"I initiated this process," he repeats over and over at his public events when questioned by reporters. "I am respecting the process."

The governor promises a full accounting of the free golf he is required to report on disclosure forms but did not - where he played and with whom. But he does not give a deadline.

Standing outside the Franklin County Municipal Courthouse on Friday after being found guilty of violating state ethics laws, Brian Hicks, former Taft chief of staff, was far from vague about his ethical problems: He said he paid a fair price for the two Florida vacations at Tom and Bernadette Noe's home in the Keys - $800, for a total of nine nights in 2002 and 2003.

Brian Hicks, left, Gov. Bob Taft's former chief of staff, appears in Columbus Municipal Court with attorney John Ziegler. Mr. Hicks pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor ethics charge. Brian Hicks, left, Gov. Bob Taft's former chief of staff, appears in Columbus Municipal Court with attorney John Ziegler. Mr. Hicks pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor ethics charge.

But, he said, he wanted to get the firestorm of publicity behind him. So he pleaded "no contest" to criminal charges that he paid less than the value of the vacation stay and failed to report the remainder as a gift on a state ethics financial disclosure form.

Columbus Judge Scott VanDerKarr sentenced the lobbyist to a $1,000 fine, plus court costs. He doled out the same punishment to former Taft staffer Cherie Carroll, who also was in court Friday facing ethics charges - for accepting free dinners at expensive Columbus restaurants from Mr. Noe.

Mr. Taft on Friday said he is "disappointed" in Mr. Hicks and Ms. Carroll. Mr. Hicks said he believes the governor is an ethical man.

"I'm not going to comment on the specific investigations that are going on about him, but I'm confident he will be fine and I'm confident he should be fine," Mr. Hicks said outside the courthouse. "I have had a very long, strong relationship with Governor Taft."

Mr. Hicks, now a lobbyist who has been called one of the most powerful nonelected officials in the state because of his ties to the governor, had sharp words for Mr. Noe, a person he considered a friend.

"If it turns out that Tom Noe is a con man, he is a con man that conned people from the courthouse to the White House," he said after his court hearing Friday.

And he later told a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch that he thought the governor "will be fine," but that Mr. Noe could be headed for prison. "And it will be well deserved, based on what you read."

Mr. Hicks and Mr. Taft offer a contrast in what has become the most persistent and damaging political scandal in a generation in Ohio.

With the first convictions for ethical violations on Friday, those involved with Mr. Noe may be taking stock as multiple investigations move forward.

Others, political opponents in particular, are seizing the opportunity to raise their profiles by offering suggested reforms and pointed criticisms.

Gregg Thornton, Ohio's first deputy inspector general, left, and David Freel, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, meet with reporters in Columbus on Friday. Gregg Thornton, Ohio's first deputy inspector general, left, and David Freel, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, meet with reporters in Columbus on Friday.

"I think you are going to find a whole bunch of people hiring lawyers and seeing how quickly they can get to a prosecutor's office to cut a deal," predicted Paul Tipps, an influential Columbus lobbyist and the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

The ethical and legal troubles swirling around the governor's office and top GOP officials started in early April when The Blade began reporting on the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation's $50 million investment in two rare-coin funds set up by Mr. Noe.

The newspaper then reported on Mr. Hicks' cut-rate vacations at the Noes' Florida home and on the "Noe Supper Club" - a regular event he held at a back room of an exclusive Columbus steakhouse where he paid for the meals and drinks of current and former Taft staffers and influential Statehouse lobbyists.

The scandal so far has led to a pair of criminal convictions, the resignaton of a Taft cabinet member - former bureau administrator James Conrad - exposure of other investment losses at the bureau, including a whopping $215 million Bermuda hedge fund loss, and has spawned 13 state and federal investigations into influence peddling, rare coins, and corruption.

Mr. Noe stands accused by Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro of stealing at least $4 million from the state rare-coin funds he managed, and his own lawyers have told state officials that up to $13 million from the funds is missing.

In late May, state officials took over the coin funds, conducting a search warrant at Mr. Noe's homes and business in Monclova Township. They have seized Ohio-bought rare coins from across the country and obtained a court order prohibiting Mr. Noe from disposing of personal assets.

On top of those troubles, the FBI and a federal grand jury in Toledo are investigating whether Mr. Noe illegally laundered money to President Bush's campaign at an event organized by Mr. Hicks. Governor Taft was the head of the President's Ohio campaign last year.

The scrutiny focused on Mr. Noe has spilled over onto everyone who has had dealings with him, including the governor and his closest aides.

More than five weeks after Mr. Taft admitted he failed to report a number of golf outings on a financial disclosure form, he continues to stonewall questions about what he called "errors and omissions" on the forms. He reported the errors and omissions to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

On Friday, the scandal for the first time moved into a criminal phase, and like Mr. Hicks, the governor faces similar questions about what he did and did not choose to report on financial disclosure forms. Questions of golf games with Mr. Noe and other businessmen remain and could dog Mr. Taft in the weeks and months to come.

At least twice, the governor golfed with Mr. Noe at Toledo's exclusive Inverness Club, where the Monclova Township coin dealer was a member, Mr. Noe's attorneys have confirmed.

The coin dealer, though, has not said publicly who paid, and Mr. Taft won't say whether he golfed with the GOP contributor, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and causes.

Earlier this month, the governor did say he failed to disclose "a lot of information."

"I want to make sure that when we disclose, we disclose everything," he said.

When reminded at a press event that as governor, he could say whatever he wanted, Mr. Taft still would not talk about golf or if he played for free or at all with Mr. Noe or any other person doing business with the state.

Taft attorney William Meeks has not returned several messages from The Blade.

Mr. Noe's attorneys say the coin dealer is cooperating with members of two task forces investigating the rare-coin scandal and potential ethical violations.

"Mr. Noe is cooperating with all 13 government investigations that are under way," William Wilkinson, an attorney for Mr. Noe, said last week. "I will not confirm or deny that he spoke with anyone in particular and [at] any particular time."

Mr. Wilkinson said his client has complied with "every request that has been made for information."

In light of the scandal and ethics convictions, some Republicans and Democrats have called for policy changes. Even Governor Taft on Friday called for a review of his office's ethics policy.

Republican state Sen. Tim Grendell of Chesterland called this week for a new law that would bar state officials found guilty of a crime from working as lobbyists. The legislation, which he plans to introduce this week, would bar felons for life and suspend lesser offenders for five years.

"My goal would be to create a true deterrence," he said. "I think we need to restore public trust in state institutions, and I think that goes beyond politics."

The GOP has not embraced the proposal, but spokesman Jason Mauk said the state party is "open to reforming ethics laws, if those reforms improve the performance of state government."

"We don't have an official position on the legislation, but we have said repeatedly that this party is committed to investigating and prosecuting anyone who steps over the ethical or criminal line," Mr. Mauk said.

Catherine Turcer, legislative director for Ohio Citizen Action, a government watchdog group, wants greater reporting and harsher punishments.

Ms. Turcer suggested that politicians and bureaucrats file their ethics reports quarterly, instead of annually. That way, the reports could be compared with similar reports made by lobbyists each quarter.

"If you think about the pay-to-play system and the culture in Columbus, everything is sort of rumoresque," she said. "It's like a soap opera, isn't it? We don't know exactly what is going to happen, but we do know that the penalties aren't stiff enough."

"One of the things we need is good clear rules," she said. "The second part we need is enforcement. But in order to get enforcement, you need to audit things."

David Freel, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission and one of the investigators who signed the complaints against Mr. Hicks and Ms. Carroll, said Friday that despite Mr. Hicks' finer points about rental rates, the state's ethics code is "pretty simple stuff."

"Public officials need to pay their own way or disclose what they were given. It's about accountability and responsibility," he said. "The law is above everybody."

Blade staff writers Joshua Boak and Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Eder at: seder@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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