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Published: Monday, 8/29/2005

Taft claims he can still govern, but not all agree

BY STEVE EDER
AND JAMES DREW
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS - With his criminal conviction behind him, Gov. Bob Taft has pledged to buckle down and conduct the business of the state for his final 16 months in office.

But lingering concerns about what he knew about Ohio's failed $50 million rare-coin investment with Tom Noe and continuing revelations in the state investment scandal have put Mr. Taft's ability to effectively govern in peril, according to some Democrats and Republicans.

As a result, members of the state legislature from both political parties and grassroots organizations from the left and the right have called on the governor to step aside to allow the state to recover from the embarrassment that is swirling through his administration and state government.

Mr. Taft's supporters argue that he has managed the state well during the last five months, even with the cloud of scandal hanging over his administration. Despite the distractions stemming from the scandal, they predict the governor will be effective in separating his political problems from the issues concerning the state.

On Saturday, Mr. Noe's attorney, William Wilkinson, issued a news release providing details of a locker room conversation at Toledo's exclusive Inverness Club between Mr. Noe and the governor in May, 2001, in which the rare-coin investment with the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation was allegedly discussed.

Mr. Taft, who was convicted Aug. 18 on ethics charges, has adamantly denied having any knowledge of the investment at the center of the scandal until The Blade first reported on the coin fund on April 3, 2005.

On Wednesday, during a stop in Toledo, Mr. Taft spoke of his administration's policy accomplishments and he said he expects more accomplishments before he leaves office.

"My job is to continue to do the job that I was elected to do over the next months," he said. "I have one job to do and that is to move this state forward as governor."

He said he did not believe his policy initiatives would be overshadowed by the scandal.

"We just came through a remarkable year from a policy standpoint," Mr. Taft said. "Even in the last two and a half months, we approved a slow growth budget that cuts our income taxes by 21 percent, reduces sales tax, [and includes] a new business tax system that I believe will help us grow jobs. We're excited about implementing that, excited about Medicare reforms in the state budget.

"I'll continue to do the work I was elected to do as the governor in this state."

The governor, though, faces challenges not only in his official capacity, but as the chief supporter of the Third Frontier ballot initiative, which voters will decide in November. Mr. Taft is asking Ohioans to support a $500 million bond issue for high-tech investment on the Nov. 8 ballot.

David Zanotti, the president of Ohio Roundtable, a nonprofit organization often aligned with conservative ideals, said last week that the Third Frontier Issue One ballot question will be a "referendum" on Mr. Taft.

Ohio Roundtable established a Web site in coordination with liberal-leaning Ohio Citizen Action last week, Moveontaft.org, which is aimed at driving the governor from office.

"It is going to be very interesting to watch the people of Ohio deal with Issue One, because the truth about Issue One is that it is Bob Taft's idea," Mr. Zanotti said. "It will be an interesting referendum on Bob Taft. That's something the people will decide."

Republican leaders in the Republican-controlled Statehouse hope the governor can regain his focus on the issues that are important to his administration and the party.

GOP officials have said they will not call for his resignation or impeachment as long as there are no further developments pertaining to the governor's behavior while in office.

"As long as the governor stays focused on leading the state, stays focused on not letting the innuendos of different things cause him to lose his focus and his leadership responsibility, I think the governor will be fine, provided there are no other circumstances that develop," Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) said last week. "I think the governor is in position to provide leadership to the state for the rest of his term."

Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Noe's attorney, said yesterday that his client is anxious to talk to officials from the U.S. attorney's office of the Northern and Southern Districts of Ohio, and prosecutors in Lucas and Franklin counties, possibly in early September.

Mr. Wilkinson, who on Saturday told The Blade that more details of Mr. Noe's discussion with the governor would be shared with investigators, declined to elaborate on what information would be provided.

Mr. Noe decided to go public with information about the governor's knowledge of the coin funds after the governor said the coin dealer "worked hard to conceal" the investment.

"The governor made a mistake when he made the allegation of concealment," Mr. Wilkinson said. "He had two choices. The easiest way out was to withdraw it because he had no evidence to support it. The hard way out would be suffer the brunt of the series of releases of information that demonstrate the utter falsity of the allegation. Why he chose the latter course is beyond me."

David Mark, the editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections, a nonpartisan Washington-based magazine, said he expects accusations like those lodged by Mr. Noe, as well as information provided by investigators, to chip away at the governor's credibility for the rest of his term.

Mr. Mark said it "defies common sense" for Mr. Taft to say he didn't know about the investment - and it will cause problems for him politically in the months ahead.

"If Noe is so connected to Republican politics, there is almost no way Governor Taft could not have known about this," Mr. Mark said. "It just defies credibility for Taft to say he didn't know what this guy was up to."

As a result of the scrutiny on Mr. Taft, Mr. Mark expects Republicans to distance themselves from the governor as the 2006 elections near, relegating him to the role of a lame-duck leader.

The three leading Republican candidates for governor - Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, Auditor Betty Montgomery, or Attorney General Jim Petro - have not called on Mr. Taft to resign.

The two leading Democratic candidates hoping to replace Mr. Taft when his term expires next year are divided on the next step for the governor.

One candidate, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, has called for Mr. Taft's resignation, citing concerns that questions surrounding his behavior in office will paralyze not only his administration, but all of state government. He said the back-and-forth between Mr. Noe and the governor is a preview of what lies ahead for the governor as investigators and the public scrutinize the failure of Ohio's rare-coin investment.

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, who is competing with Mr. Coleman for the Democratic nomination, has stopped short of calling for Mr. Taft's resignation.

But Mr. Strickland believes the governor must be put under oath and asked to explain exactly what he knew about the state's investment with Mr. Noe.

Another Democrat, state Sen. Marc Dann, of suburban Youngstown, said there is still hope for Mr. Taft as governor.

Mr. Dann, an outspoken critic of the governor, said Mr. Taft has an opportunity to become a reformer by cleaning up the "corruption" in Columbus that led to the scandal. The first step, he said, is for the governor to "come clean" - and that would include disclosing what he knew about the coin fund.

"I don't think there's anybody in Columbus left who believes that Bob Taft didn't know that Tom Noe had Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation investments until The Toledo Blade ran the stories," Mr. Dann said.

Blade staff writer Joshua Boak contributed to this report.

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



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