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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2006

Ex-Taft aides played politics game

BY JAMES DREW
AND STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS - Doug Talbott and Doug Moormann pursued the path to power and money at the highest level of state government.

They landed jobs after Republican George Voinovich won the governor's race in 1990 and worked their way up to powerful posts in the governor's office when Bob Taft took over in 1999.

They then took the route that others had before them - jumping from government to lobbying government and profiting from their influence and the connections they had developed over the years.

Along the way, Mr. Talbott, the political guy, and Mr. Moormann, the policy wonk, became close friends. They also shared a friend: Tom Noe.

Last week, it all came crashing down in a Columbus courtroom. On Friday, Mr. Talbott and Mr. Moormann became the third and fourth former Taft aides convicted of violating state ethics law because of favors they accepted from the former Maumee coin dealer.

They followed their former boss, Governor Taft, who in August became the first sitting Ohio governor to be convicted of a crime. The great-grandson of a U.S. president, Mr. Taft was found guilty of failing to disclose more than four dozen free golf outings and other gifts from lobbyists and businessmen, some from Mr. Noe.

Like Mr. Taft, Mr. Talbott and Mr. Moormann were caught in the wave of scandal washing over the GOP-controlled state government after revelations in The Blade beginning in April, 2005.

Those stories documented problems in the $50 million rare-coin funds that Mr. Noe controlled and managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

Mr. Talbott, 41, took $39,000 from the coin dealer to help him buy a home in Lakeside, Ohio. He also helped Mr. Noe illegally launder campaign contributions to Ohio Supreme Court candidates and to President Bush and was a regular at the "Noe Supper Club" - the nickname for the lavish Columbus dinner parties where the GOP fund-raiser would pick up the tab.

Mr. Moormann, 38, took $5,000 from Mr. Noe to help him make two house payments after moving to the Cincinnati area for a new job with his Columbus home still on the market.

Investigators said they could not find evidence that the money paid to Mr. Talbott and Mr. Moormann - they called them loans - were bribes.

A Franklin County judge on Friday ordered both men to repay the loans into an escrow account - potentially to reimburse the workers' compensation bureau - and to pay fines after he found them guilty on misdemeanor charges.

As critics point to the downfall of the two former governor's aides as another management failure for Mr. Taft, others say their convictions are the latest examples of a decades-old culture in the state capital that tolerates influence-peddling and downplays ethical misdeeds as the cost of doing business.

"The culture has not changed, and it won't until people are outraged and there are consequences,'' said Mary Anne Sharkey, Mr. Taft's former communications director and a consultant.

A federal grand jury indicted Mr. Noe in October for allegedly funneling $45,400 to President Bush's campaign. Mr. Noe was charged with 53 felony counts of forgery and theft in his operation of the coin fund, according to an indictment from a Lucas County grand jury that was unsealed on Feb. 13.

And a special audit released last week said Mr. Noe owes the state $13.5 million and alleges that part of his lavish and charitable lifestyle was financed with money from the state's rare-coin investment.

Mr. Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, appointed Mr. Noe to the Ohio Board of Regents in 1995. Mr. Taft reappointed him in 1999 and then picked him in 2003 to serve on the Turnpike Commission.

Mr. Noe, along with his wife, Bernadette, hosted fund-raisers and contributed more than $200,000 to Republican candidates and causes - including the campaigns of Mr. Voinovich, Mr. Taft, and President Bush.

"The mover and shaker of the political party becomes a part of government, raising contributions and then being appointed to boards; it's like a big, enmeshed dysfunctional family," said Catherine Turcer, legislative director for Ohio Citizen Action, a statewide consumer and environmental group.

Many Republicans don't see it that way.

Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist, said: "The people who led the [Taft] administration tried their best to set a good example, but obviously there were some problems."

Mr. Talbott, who grew up in Akron, worked his way into government service through politics like so many before him.

He worked on Mr. Voinovich's successful gubernatorial campaign in 1990. From 1991 to 1994, he worked for the governor as a scheduler and advance man.

He met Mr. Noe in 1992 at Bowling Green State University, where Mr. Talbott was preparing for a Voinovich appearance at Buckeye Boys' State. A year earlier, Mr. Voinovich had appointed Mr. Noe, a college dropout, to the BGSU Board of Trustees.

During Mr. Voinovich's second term, Mr. Talbott worked in the Ohio Department of Development, at one point as a deputy director in charge of the state's regional economic development offices.

When Mr. Taft took over the governor's office, Mr. Talbott stayed on, this time as the governor's director of board and commissions - a perfect job for someone who started out helping to run political campaigns.

In that post, he handled about 1,000 appointments to top state posts, jobs coveted by business leaders for the contacts they could make as well as the prestige the appointments would bring them.

Mr. Noe was among those Mr. Talbott consulted with regularly on who would be appointed to numerous posts the governor controlled.

But working for the governor had its limitations, so Mr. Talbott resigned in 2000 to become a Columbus lobbyist - where the real money was.

In 2003, Mr. Taft appointed his aide to the state Board of Cosmetology, which would allow him to continue building his state pension.

Mr. Moormann, a graduate of the University of Dayton, got his start in government as an assistant to then U.S. Rep. Mike DeWine, a Republican.

Like Mr. Talbott, Mr. Moormann's first job in state government began in 1991 under the Voinovich administration.

When Mr. DeWine became Mr. Voinovich's lieutenant governor, Mr. Moormann moved with him to work on his staff. In 1998, Mr. Voinovich named Mr. Moormann the director of the Office of Criminal Justice Services.

Like Mr. Talbott, he reached his most powerful post when Mr. Taft took office in 1999, first as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor and later as Mr. Taft's executive assistant for business and industry. Part of his job was overseeing the Bureau of Workers' Compensation for the governor.

Mr. Moormann told investigators that Mr. Talbott introduced him to Mr. Noe. He said Mr. Talbott referred to the coin dealer as "The Toledo Don" - "a guy that was respected by the governor" and a "good guy to meet."

Mr. Moormann resigned his job in the governor's office in July, 2003, to become a lobbyist for the Greater Cincinnati Area Chamber of Commerce.

A year later, Mr. Taft appointed him to the Transportation Review Advisory Council, which approves projects for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Ms. Sharkey, a former Statehouse bureau chief for the Plain Dealer of Cleveland who became communications director for Mr. Taft in 1999, compared the governor's office to a high school. Both Mr. Talbott and Mr. Moormann were part of a "clique" led by Mr. Taft's chief of staff, Brian Hicks, she said.

Mr. Hicks was convicted in July for failing to disclose below-market rate vacations he took in 2002 and 2003 at Mr. Noe's home in the Florida Keys. Mr. Hicks was fined $1,000 for not disclosing the gifts from the coin dealer.

Mr. Hicks' assistant, Cherie Carroll, also was convicted on an ethics charge for failing to report meals she received from Mr. Noe as a member of the "Noe Supper Club," which met at Morton's, a downtown Columbus steakhouse.

Ms. Carroll organized the club, according to investigative reports. Both Mr. Talbott and Mr. Moormann attended the gatherings, where Mr. Noe picked up the tab for steaks and "top shelf" wine for political insiders.

Paul Tipps, an ex-lobbyist and former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Mr. Noe exploited Mr. Taft's weaknesses as governor.

"Noe insinuated himself with people who were around the governor. The facts are well-documented. Bob Taft is aloof as a person and as a manager, and he shoots the messenger. What this did is empower Brian Hicks, and it empowered the people around Brian Hicks. They knew no one else would talk to the governor," Mr. Tipps said.

Mr. Moormann told investigators: "I have no doubt that Brian knew about the supper clubs."

Referring to Ms. Carroll, Mr. Moormann added: "His assistant was coordinating them. She was attending them. I think Brian had a relationship with Tom Noe, and I would suspect they spoke about it."

Ms. Sharkey - whom Mr. Taft reappointed last December to a state board that oversees testing of counselors and social workers - said she believes Mr. Taft is an "ethical and honest person,'' but she said the governor and Mr. Hicks sent a signal about Mr. Noe that Mr. Talbott and Mr. Moormann picked up: Mr. Noe was OK.

"A lot of us wondered about Noe. He seemed like someone who could play fast and loose. It surprised me when Noe was appointed to two boards. No major appointment went out there without Brian signing off," she said.

Governor Taft's office overlooks downtown Columbus and the Ohio Statehouse and is on the 30th floor of the Riffe building, which is named for Vern Riffe, the former Democratic speaker of the House from 1975-1994. Mr. Riffe pleaded guilty in 1996 to two misdemeanor charges of failing to disclose $4,500 he received for breakfast meetings with lobbyists. He died a year later.

Every time Mr. Taft and his aides go through the lobby of the Riffe building, they walk near a large bust of the former speaker.

"Can you imagine walking through there and your role model is someone who got caught in a scandal?'' said Ms. Turcer of Ohio Citizen Action. "Corruption should not be a role model."

Ms. Turcer said the convictions of Mr. Taft, Mr. Hicks, Ms. Carroll, Mr. Talbott, and Mr. Moormann are stunning examples of how a "culture of closed government" has fueled corruption.

"They should have gotten in trouble regardless of whether Tom Noe got in trouble or not," said Ms. Turcer, who called for tougher penalties for violations of ethics laws.

Roger Synenberg, Mr. Talbott's attorney, said his client had paid enough. "This is the first day of the rest of his life, and he wants to move on toward closing this matter and going on being gainfully employed and being a productive citizen," Mr. Synenberg said. "He is a good man, he made a mistake, he's paid dearly for it, and he wants to put it all behind him."

Ms. Sharkey expressed concern that citizens are not seeing the bigger picture of the 10-month scandal in Mr. Taft's administration. An irony is that both Mr. Talbott and Mr. Moormann held jobs in the governor's office that involved economic development.

"This corruption is truly hurting Ohio economically," Ms. Sharkey said. "Businesses don't want to invest here. The state has a reputation for being corrupt. It's becoming like New Jersey."

Contact James Drew at: jdrew@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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