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Published: 2/10/2006

Taft: 'High time' Ohio revisits lobbying, contracting rules

BY STEVE EDER AND JAMES DREW
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS - His administration mired in a 10-month ethics scandal, Gov. Bob Taft yesterday said it is "high time" the state revisit and reform its lobbying and contracting rules as he proposed a number of changes in the way Ohio does business.

The governor made the announcement the same day the Franklin County prosecutor said he planned to bring charges against former Taft aide H. Douglas Talbott for allegedly violating state ethics and campaign finance laws in his dealings with indicted GOP contributor Tom Noe. Last summer, Mr. Taft was convicted on ethics charges for failing to disclose dozens of golf outings and gifts he had received from lobbyists and businessmen, including Mr. Noe.

"It's high time we revisit and reform our lobbying and contracting laws to ensure fairness and to assure full accountability to the public," Mr. Taft said in a statement yesterday.

The reforms would ban executive branch employees from accepting gifts from lobbyists and consultants and would deter vendors from trying to influence officials who award state business.

The proposal also calls for greater restrictions on no-bid contracts, including limiting contributions from vendors as well as their lobbyists and consultants.

In addition, Mr. Taft wants to require lobbyists to disclose their fees and require the state to make contracting information available online. The governor also wants lobbying and contracting reviewed by lawmakers every five years.

Last year, The Blade first reported on the state's $50 million rare-coin venture with Mr. Noe, sparking a scandal and the disclosure of a shortfall of up to $13 million in the investment. In addition to Mr. Taft, two former aides, including his former chief of staff, Brian Hicks, have been convicted on ethics charges for accepting gifts from Mr. Noe. Other aides remain under investigation.

The Blade also reported last year on the role of campaign contributions from firms that receive contracts from the Ohio Department of Transportation and from individuals who get appointments to state university boards of trustees.

Mr. Taft yesterday in a memo to legislative leaders outlined proposals he hopes will be implemented before the summer.

Scott Borgemenke, chief of staff to House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering), said the governor's proposals reflect how state law needs to be clarified, but he wasn't certain about how many members of the GOP caucus would support the measures.

For example, he noted that one of Mr. Taft's recommendations would prohibit individuals from contributing more than $1,000 to the official responsible for awarding that contract for one year after the contract was awarded - a provision that Mr. Borgemenke said appeared to be aimed at what happened with Mr. Noe. The current ban is two years before the contract is awarded.

Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) said he supports Mr. Taft's proposals "in concept," but he said it was unclear whether the legislature could take action by the summer recess.

Craig Holman, who lobbies on campaign-finance issues for Public Citizen, a government watchdog group based in Washington, said the reforms fall short because they fail to force contractors to file their own campaign finance records with the state.

"It should be the responsibility of the contractor to accumulate the campaign finance records of all persons captured in the definition of government contractor and disclose those records to the state," Mr. Holman said.

Contact Steve Eder at:

seder@theblade.com or

419-724-6272.



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