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Published: Friday, 10/28/2005

Dems see culture of corruption; GOP distances itself

BY JAMES DREW AND STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS - From the Ohio Statehouse to the White House, nearly seven months of controversy swirling around Tom Noe intensified yesterday as Republicans grappled with the indictment of one of their most prominent fund-raisers.

Mr. Noe, who was chairman of President Bush's re-election efforts in northwest Ohio, gained the elite fund-raising status of Bush Pioneer for raising at least $100,000 for the re-election campaign.

Yesterday the Democratic National Committee again called on President Bush to return the "tainted money" raised by Mr. Noe, but the President has resisted, instead giving back $4,000 that the coin dealer and his wife contributed directly.

"Tom Noe is a prime example of the culture of corruption that President Bush and his special-interest cronies have fostered in Washington and state capitals across the country," DNC spokesman Karen Finney said in a statement.

A White House spokesman wouldn't comment, referring questions to the Republican National Committee.

Aaron McLear, an RNC spokesman, said: "We have donated the funds given directly to the RNC and Bush-Cheney '04 from both Tom and Bernadette Noe to charity. We will continue to fully cooperate with the investigation as we have been throughout the course of this process and will take other appropriate actions if the situation warrants it."

David Mark, the editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections, a nonpartisan Washington-based magazine, said Mr. Noe's indictment is "pouring fuel" on the problems facing the Bush Administration, which is awaiting potential indictments in the CIA leak case. President Bush's choice for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers, also withdrew her nomination yesterday.

"This is a whole new wave of bad stories for the White House and Ohio Republicans, neither of which needed more bad news," Mr. Mark said.

Supporters of four proposed constitutional amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot that would dramatically overhaul Ohio's election system said yesterday's indictment alleging that Mr. Noe laundered money into President Bush's re-election campaign will help them prove their point.

"Tom Noe might be the most prominent player in the culture of corruption, but he is not alone,'' said Keary McCarthy, a spokesman for Reform Ohio Now.

Ohio First spokesman David Hopcraft said he had no comment on Mr. Noe's indictment, but expected that proponents of the amendment would try to use it to their advantage at the ballot box.

"I'm sure our opponents will try to make him an issue," Mr. Hopcraft said. "They try to make everything an issue, except explaining what they've got before voters."

Issues, 2, 3, 4, and 5 respectively would allow voters to cast absentee ballots up to 35 days before election day without having to give a reason; overhaul campaign contribution limits; take the authority to redraw congressional and legislative districts out of the hands of elected officials and give it to a new appointed panel on which no elected official could sit, and take away the secretary of state's election oversight authority and give it to a new statewide elections board.

Ohio Democrats reacted to Mr. Noe's indictment by targeting Gov. Bob Taft. Last August, he was found guilty of four first-degree misdemeanor ethics violations for knowingly failing to disclose the sources of dozens of golf outings and gifts he received from lobbyists and businessmen, including Mr. Noe.

State Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown-area Democrat who is weighing a bid for statewide office, said he hopes federal officials "will not tolerate" plea deals cut after Mr. Taft and his former chief of staff, Brian Hicks, were charged with violating the state's ethics laws.

Mark Rickel, Mr. Taft's press secretary, said the "governor believes this is a very serious criminal matter."

"It is now in the hands of capable criminal prosecutors," Mr. Rickel said.

Republicans sought to blunt the partisan damage from Mr. Noe's indictment.

Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said,"It doesn't matter whether Tom Noe is a Democrat or Republican. If he's found guilty of a crime, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

"These indictments prove the system works, and anyone who tried to manipulate the process for personal or political advantage will pay a heavy price,'' Mr. Bennett said in a written statement.

Brian Rothenberg, communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party, said Republicans, independents, and Democrats should be "outraged" by the charges against Mr. Noe.

"Democratic candidates know that they must provide safeguards to re-engineer trust that government needs to serve the best interests of people - not cronies,'' he said.

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland (D., Lucasville) who is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination in the 2006 governor's race, said he is hopeful that federal investigators will pursue anyone who may have been complicit in Mr. Noe's alleged scheme.

Mr. Strickland's primary opponent, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, said Mr. Taft and other GOP leaders should disclose the names of those who prosecutors say helped Mr. Noe illegally funnel $45,400 to the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio.

Two of the three GOP candidates for governor released written statements. Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell couldn't be reached for comment.

Auditor Betty Montgomery said she was pleased that U.S. Attorney Gregory A. White is "making significant progress toward identifying money lost and holding wrongdoers accountable."

"I have instructed my auditors from day one to 'get it right, get it fast, and follow the money wherever and to whomever it goes.' I expect to be able to release more information about our special audit in the near future,'' she said.

Contact James Drew at:

jdrew@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.


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