J. Gilbert Reese remembers sacrificing an expensive bottle of Italian wine - the one he was saving for a special occasion - to the discerning palate of Tom Noe.
Mr. Reese, a folksy lawyer who helped found a technical trade school in his Newark, Ohio, hometown, invited the Noes over for drinks while they were all in the Florida Keys at their vacation homes a few years back. The two men served on the Ohio Board of Regents together.
At the home, Mr. Noe spoke of Pierre's, a fancy nearby restaurant, and the fine wine he bought there - not the cheap stuff of $80 a bottle and less. Mr. Reese knew then the bottle he stashed would have to come out. He didn't want to be embarrassed by serving cheap wine, he said.
"I was going save the bottle until the day I was elected president," he said. "I couldn't serve him that $7.50 wine. ... [The Italian bottle] wasn't half as nice a bottle of wine than he's used to."
Far removed from the days of buying wine at Pierre's, Mr. Noe and his wife, Bernadette, are now accused by Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro in a civil filing last week of stealing from a $50 million state rare-coin fund to finance a heady lifestyle and to cultivate a millionaire's image. He is accused of using $43,773 in state money to buy palm trees and pay for other landscaping at a Florida Keys home, and to help purchase Mr. Noe's in-laws' lake- side property on Catawba Island for $270,000.
The court filing asks a judge to freeze more of the Noes' personal assets so they will be available to repay the state injured workers' fund from which he allegedly stole.
Throughout six months of state investigations into Mr. Noe and the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation's failed $50 million investment into rare coins, stories of fine wine and pricey dinners at the best restaurants have punctuated a constant theme of living the high life.
In his Columbus life, Mr. Noe routinely picked up dinner tabs for lobbyists and the governor's staff at Morton's - a favorite of Statehouse insiders - lent money to lobbyists, and gave more than $200,000 with his wife to state GOP politicians and party causes over the years.
In 2002, Tom Noe wrote a check for $43,773 to landscape this waterfront home in Islamorada, Fla. The attorney general says Mr. Noe forged the check to allow him access to funds to pay for the landscaping.
He was such a prolific Republican fund-raiser he was named a "Pioneer" by the Bush-Cheney re-election committee for raising between $100,000 and $250,000 for the President.
Mr. Noe liked to dine at the best places.
In the Keys, it was sometimes at Pierre's, where a guest can buy a bottle of 1982 vintage Chateau Latour Bordeux for $1,600 or special order wines in bulk from the restaurant, general manager Jerome Smojver said in a thick French accent. At Morton's and at Pierre's, they know Mr. Noe's name.
In the aftermath of the rare-coin scandal, his seems an old story of keeping up with the Joneses, and an even older one of maneuvering for the ear of politicians - even President Bush.
Mr. Reese said he assumed Mr. Noe was a millionaire, like a lot of people did, and added that the coin dealer's close relationship with politicians helped with their work on the higher education board. He said Mr. Noe worked hard and understood the issues well.
"I don't know what coin and currency dealers do, but he was established in that business. I never had any idea how he did it," Mr. Reese said. "He took money from the state - that's an entirely different side than I saw."
Gov. Bob Taft, who allowed Mr. Noe to pay for their golf games, was convicted of four misdemeanors in August for not reporting the free golf and other gifts on state ethics forms. Mr. Taft reappointed Mr. Noe as a regent and also appointed him to the Ohio Turnpike Commission. Mr. Taft's former chief of staff, Brian Hicks, also was convicted of accepting the gift of reduced rent from Mr. Noe to stay in the Keys during spring break.
Mr. Noe became famous for the hedonism, even prompting Gov. Bob Taft to feature it in a prepared speech. He referred to the coin dealer's "other life" in Columbus and to him as "Magnum Tom" at a 50th birthday party roast of the former Maumee coin dealer that also doubled as a fund-raiser for the Lucas County GOP.
Mr. Petro attended the roast, and now years later says Mr. Noe, who is described as always with a smile and handshake, did not engage in a sophisticated, high-finance scheme. It was more mundane than that - using state money to cover checks written for high-priced purchases before they bounced, Mr. Petro claimed in the court papers. A basic review of personal checking accounts and coin fund records proves that, he said.
William Wilkinson, one of Mr. Noe's attorneys, said Mr. Petro's review was "immature-ish" because it does not prove state money was used to purchase personal property for the Noes, only that it was conceivable that it could have happened.
The attorney general claims to have conducted some sort of tracing analysis to trace Tom Noe s Catawba house to coin-fund money. It s just not true, he said Friday.
Mr. Noe s fortunes moved with that of the political party he and wife, Bernadette, helped finance as it grew in power.
In the same way, moving from local coin dealer hitting up customers for investment capital to connected politico hosting the governor s staff in back-room dinner parties took some time. He did not have access to millions in state funds from the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation until 1998.
Tom Noe and his wife, Bernadette, are trying to sell their house in Key Largo, Fla., for $4.6 million. It has five bedrooms, an elevator, and an ocean view.
And back in 1991, Democrats controlled Ohio s political world. Mr. Noe had to hustle to act on his rare-coin investment ideas. Looking back now, the state s investment into rare coins with Mr. Noe in 1998 for $25 million, and again in 2001 for another $25 million resembles a smaller deal he set up with five local investors in 1991.
In those early days, Mr. Noe looked to neighbors, folk who came into his coin store, and people he met around town for investment cash.
The investments were pitched with promise and lasted years, but they bore no financial fruit, several of the early investors told The Blade. In the end, Mr. Noe returned the original investments without a profit a zero-sum game that took years, they said.
According to 1991 records filed with the Lucas County Recorder, 12 people or organizations contributed a total of $550,000 into a limited partnership with Mr. Noe, called Numismatic Investors. Each investment unit cost $50,000, but Mr. Noe, as the manager with the expertise, received a unit for $5,000.
The state s first rare-coin fund was set up in 1997 in much the same way, but with the state s contribution of $25 million and Mr. Noe and his partner, Frank Greenberg, each contributing $5,000.
Stan Odesky, who operates his own market-research company and knows Mr. Noe through Lucas County politics, said he vaguely remembers his rare-coin investment with Mr. Noe about 15 years ago. According to the same records in the recorder s office, Mr. Odesky invested $50,000 in Numismatic Investors. The total $550,000 investment was meant to form a rare-coin fund, one similar to the two $25 million funds Mr. Noe set up and managed for the state.
Despite the records, Mr. Odesky said he doubts he invested $50,000: I would remember that, he said.
Toledo dentist David Ryerson remembers his rare-coin investment well. With a recession at hand in 1991 and the stock market falling, he bought some gold jewelry for his wife at Mr. Noe s shop, which then was on Monroe Street. Mr. Noe pitched him, and he saw an opportunity to invest $50,000 in rare coins. He invested as coin investing hit a stride on Wall Street. Merrill Lynch had just begun a celebrated multimillion dollar fund, one that would later fail in an infamous case that cost the firm $30 million it paid back to investors.
Like the state in later years, Mr. Ryerson was paid dividends on his rare-coin investment for several years, he said. But in the end he lost an equivalent amount on the principal when he cashed out. The zero-sum result left him regretting the investment choice, he said, remembering that Mr. Noe wanted to model his fund after the Merrill Lynch venture.
Mr. Petro also has accused Mr. Noe of faking profits by moving money between the two coin funds and of improperly taking profit checks for himself. He said the coin dealer manufactured the profits all in a pursuit to live the good life.
DSI, the company liquidating the coin funds for the state, said that the $50 million principal might be recovered.
Mr. Wilkinson said there might be a shortfall of up to $13 million in the confiscated coin funds. But recently he allowed that it was possible the full $50 million could be returned to the state after the assets are sold off, as with Mr. Ryerson s investment.
We had cottages up at Devils Lake together; so I knew him. I invested in that, and it was not a good investment, like many of them, Mr. Ryerson said. I would say that was not real successful.
Two sides to story
The 1991 fund illustrates that like every coin, Mr. Noe had at least two sides in his business dealings and attempt to move up in social and political circles.
On the one hand, he would search out investment dollars for his coin ventures from whoever would listen. He would try to use coins as collateral in private deals for Toledo property, and he would hit up fellow trustees on boards to invest in coins. On the other hand, he wanted to operate in the highest political circles, as a powerful political player and a guy with millions.
The charges made last week by Mr. Petro that Mr. Noe stole millions to finance this lifestyle and the purchase of homes, boats, and other luxuries, might demonstrate that balancing the simultaneous quests, one for investment capital and gains and the other for an expensive image, may have been too expensive to pull off.
He worked at it for years, though, making inroads and friends in the political world and earning the gratitude of his neighbors, often using money that Mr. Petro claims may not have been his.
Three years ago, he gave a $39,000 loan to H. Douglas Talbott, a Columbus lobbyist who worked for Mr. Taft and former Republican Gov. George Voinovich, to buy a house in Lakeside, Ohio. Two years ago, Mr. Noe and his neighbors on Catawba Island wanted to upgrade their small marina and dredge the channel to the lake and the marina, allowing for boat berths.
But they did not have enough money. Mr. Noe stepped in and offered a $52,000 no-interest loan, payable in two annual installments.
Last year, the neighborhood association, with dues collected from each homeowner, made the first payment. The second one is due this fall.
The group is trying to determine to whom the upcoming payment should be made.
He was just being a good neighbor. There was never any money to be made on this, said Jim Gideon, a Cleveland-area accountant who has handled the loan for the neighborhood. At least in this neighborhood, he s well-liked.
Blade state writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.
Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: email@example.com or 419-724-6077.
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