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Published: Thursday, 8/4/2005

Noe lavished gifts on political bigwigs

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS - Tom Noe showered Columbus decision-makers with lavish meals, golf outings, and vacations, extending his largess from Ohio's capital to Washington, and to the Florida Keys, records released yesterday by the Columbus city prosecutor's office show.

Dozens of pages of investigative records shed light on Mr. Noe's so-called "Supper Club" with influential bureaucrats and other gifts to power brokers, including Brian Hicks, Gov. Bob Taft's former chief of staff, who last week was convicted on ethics law violations for his vacations to the Toledo-area coin dealer's Florida home.

In an April 17, 2002, note to Mr. Noe, Mr. Hicks wrote: "Thanks again for allowing us to spend some time in your paradise in the sun."

Mr. Hicks told The Blade in May he paid Mr. Noe $300 to $500 to rent Mr. Noe's condo in Islamorada, Fla., but records show that experts interviewed by investigators believed the former public official should have paid between $1,500 to $2,800 for the vacations. The former chief-of-staff turned lobbyist vacationed at the Noes' Florida property in 2003, the report says.

Mr. Hicks, who was convicted on a misdemeanor and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, could face additional charges in the future, records show. Mr. Hicks, who did not cooperate with investigators and refused to comply with a subpoena for documents, did not return a message seeking comment.

Mr. Noe, a Republican fund-raiser, is facing multiple state and federal investigations for his handling of two rare-coin funds he set up to invest $50 million from the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation. In late May, his attorneys told state officials that up to $13 million from the fund was missing. Two weeks ago, Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro accused Mr. Noe of stealing at least $4 million of the state's money from the coin funds.

Mr. Noe's attorneys could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The Hicks' investigative report released yesterday illustrates how Mr. Noe peddled influence to the highest levels of government, even though many key names and pieces of information were largely censored from the investigative documents.

For more than a decade, Mr. Noe has realized the importance of his relationships with politicians and people in power. When asked during divorce proceedings involving his previous wife how his chairmanship of the Lucas County Republican Party had enhanced his business, Mr. Noe said, "I think it's kept me alive."

By the early 1990s, even as his Toledo-area coin business struggled, Mr. Noe contributed thousands of dollars to Republican political campaigns. More than a decade later, he continued to contribute - but he also had built the relationships that often brought him face to face with the governor's closest aide and others close to the state's top official, records released yesterday show.

During President Bush's first inaugural celebration, Mr. Noe spent $1,501 at Morton's in Washington on Jan. 20, 2001, which was a Saturday.

In a Jan. 22 letter on state letterhead, Mr. Hicks wrote: "Kathy and I would like to thank you ... for the wonderful dinner on Saturday night."

The investigative report includes two pages of transcripts of an investigator's interview with Gary Suhadolnik, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission. Mr. Suhadolnik, who was director of the Ohio Department of Commerce during Mr. Taft's first term, told investigators that he saw Mr. Hicks in Washington for the inaugural in 2001.

Mr. Hicks left the governor's office in 2003 to form his own political consulting and lobbying firm, Hicks Partners LLC.

Mr. Noe also used lavish meals and gatherings at upscale restaurants to bring himself closer to the people holding the state's purse strings.

He established the so-called "Noe Supper Club," which included Cherie Carroll, Mr. Hicks' executive assistant at the governor's office who now works at his lobbying and consulting firm. Ms. Carroll, who was convicted on an ethics violation last week and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, coined the name "Noe Supper Club," her investigative report showed.

The club was designed for Mr. Noe to "gather specific current and former State of Ohio Employees for an evening of good food, lots of wine, socialization, and a good time for all at Morton's Restaurant," the investigative report said.

The gatherings of typically five to eight Columbus insiders were often held at the upscale Columbus restaurant, paid for by the coin dealer. Ms. Carroll, who was a gatekeeper of access to key players in the governor's office, "was responsible for determining who would be invited, setting the reservations, and making the contacts," the report said.

One unidentified participant in the club testified that "people who attended were not bashful about what they ordered because it was not an issue."

The evidence in the investigative report also showed that Ms. Carroll was in attendance for the $1,501 dinner hosted on Jan. 20, 2001, by Mr. Noe at Morton's in Washington during the inaugural celebration. Records also show that Ms. Carroll took part in gatherings paid for by Mr. Noe at least twice in 2002.

In February, 2003, after Ms. Carroll helped get Mr. Noe into the White House celebration for the Ohio State University football team, the coin dealer hosted an outing at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a Washington restaurant that included Ms. Carroll, records show. The report showed that Mr. Hicks was also believed to have taken part in the dinner at Old Ebbit Grill.

Investigators pinpointed at least five golf outings in which Mr. Hicks might have allowed others to play host and pay for his entertainment.

One of those outings included a 2002 get-together with Mr. Noe, Toledo businessman Mike Boyle, and another individual whose name was excluded from the report. Mr. Noe paid $800 for Mr. Hicks, Mr. Boyle, and a fourth person to golf at the Longaberger course in Newark, Ohio, in 2002, while Mr. Hicks served the governor.

Mr. Hicks was Mr. Taft's chief of staff from the start of his first term in 1999 to July 31, 2003, when he left the governor's office to become a lobbyist and consultant.

One person, whose name was redacted from the records, told investigators that Mr. Hicks did not reimburse anyone for the outing sponsored by the Ohio Retail Merchants Association.

Mr. Boyle declined to comment yesterday. Mr. Boyle's attorney, Steve Hartman, said Mr. Noe asked Mr. Boyle to take part in the golf outing and Mr. Boyle could not recall the other members of the foursome.

The report - compiled by the state's inspector general, Ohio Ethics Commission, and OhioHighway Patrol - also lists the following Hicks golf outings in Columbus suburbs:

●May 27, 2001, and July, 2001, at the Medallion Golf Course in Westerville.

●June, 2001, at Heritage Golf Course in Hilliard.

●June, 2002, at Muirfield Village in Dublin.

The person quoted as golfing with Mr. Hicks at Medallion said Mr. Hicks reimbursed him, but a review of Mr. Hicks' bank records by investigators failed to reveal a check for $90 between May 27, 2001, and June 3, 2001, or July 1, 2001, and July 8, 2001.

Mr. Hicks did not pay for the golf outings at Heritage and Muirfield, according to unnamed people quoted in the investigative report.

Mr. Hicks' former boss, Governor Taft, is also facing an investigation from the Ohio Ethics Commission for "errors and omissions" on his financial disclosure forms pertaining to numerous golf outings.

A log compiled by the inspector general lists subpoenas that include Mr. Noe's membership records for golf from the Inverness Club in Toledo, Mr. Hicks' bank records from Key Bank, and the guest list and member billing statements for several prestigious private golf clubs in the Columbus area.

A source close to the investigation said prosecutors did not charge Mr. Hicks with other ethics violations because they lacked "real solid evidence."

"Obviously, we reached a negotiated plea resolution based on fact and circumstances before us. I think we went forward with our strongest charge and we are satisfied with the outcome," said Lara Barker, assistant Columbus city prosecutor.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien confirmed that the plea agreement reached last week does not bar prosecutors from filing additional charges against Mr. Hicks if there is evidence to support a felony or a violation of the state's revolving-door law.

"Although we do not have evidence of a felony or evidence of an revolving-door violation, those statutes are still open. We did not want an assertion at a later date that this plea agreement had anything to do with the BWC investments," he said.

Staff writers James Drew, Joshua Boak, and Christopher D. Kirkpatrick contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Eder at:

seder@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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