COLUMBUS - The two Democratic candidates for governor yesterday said they support a bill to overturn the Ohio Supreme Court's decision allowing Gov. Bob Taft and future governors to cloak government records in secrecy.
Aides to the two Republican gubernatorial candidates, Kenneth Blackwell and Jim Petro, said they support the April 13 decision in which five Republican justices ruled that the governor has a limited executive privilege that bars release of certain records to the public.
The controversy over the high court's ruling has added another dimension to this year's statewide election, in which Democrats hope to break the Republican grip over state government. The GOP has swept statewide executive posts in the last three elections, and controls the Supreme Court and both legislative chambers.
Two candidates for attorney general - Republican Tim Grendell and Democrat Marc Dann - announced yesterday they are pushing a bill to overturn the Supreme Court's decision. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit Mr. Dann filed against Mr. Taft last year, alleging that the governor withheld documents that could shed light on Ohio's investment scandal.
If the legislature does not approve the bill, Mr. Grendell said he will circulate petitions to put the issue on the ballot.
"We have an open records law in Ohio that the media and the people rely upon to hold government accountable," said Mr. Dann, a state senator from suburban Youngstown. "The court's decision in Dann vs. Taft gutted that important statute. The bill we are proposing today will ensure that no one is above the law."
Mr. Taft, his campaign committees, and wife, Hope, have contributed $51,000 to the five Supreme Court justices who were in the majority: Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, Terrence O'Donnell, Judith Lanzinger, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, and Maureen O'Connor.
U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, said the Supreme Court had "created a right of the executive that is not found in the Ohio Constitution."
The high court's 5-2 decision - with Democratic Alice Robie Resnick and Republican Paul Pfeifer dissenting - is another example of why balance between the two major political parties is needed, Mr. Strickland said.
"If there was a greater mix of political philosophy on the current court, this issue might have received a greater debate and more careful scrutiny," he said.
Bryan Flannery, a former state representative who is Mr. Strickland's primary opponent, also would sign the bill into law if elected governor, said his spokesman, Anthony Fossaceca.
Attorney General Jim Petro, a GOP candidate for governor, believes the Supreme Court "appropriately gave limited privilege to the governor as they do for the courts and the legislature," said Kim Norris, his press secretary.
Secretary of State Blackwell, Mr. Petro's primary opponent, believes that the governor should have a "very limited privilege," said Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo.
"We agree with the Supreme Court," Mr. LoParo said. He added, however, that weekly reports from cabinet members to the governor are public records.
Mr. Grendell, who will face State Auditor Betty Montgomery in Tuesday's GOP primary for attorney general, said the Supreme Court's decision will make it impossible for the public or the press to gain access to records in the governor's office.
Mr. Dann, who is competing with former Cleveland Law Director Subodh Chandra in the Democratic primary, expressed concern that state agencies will begin to claim the same power, saying the Supreme Court decision "invites a cover-up to corruption."
In June, the same five justices who supported the decision announced they would set aside a combined $23,510 in campaign contributions from Tom Noe, the central figure in the investment scandal, and his wife, Bernadette.
Five months later, Chief Justice Moyer, and Justices O'Donnell and Lanzinger placed contributions they received from H. Douglas Talbott, a former Taft aide and lobbyist, into escrow after Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said Mr. Noe may have illegally funneled contributions to them in 2004. Mr. Talbott was convicted in February on misdemeanor charges that included accepting $1,960 from Mr. Noe and illegally funneling it to the three Supreme Court candidates.
Mr. Noe, who has been indicted by federal and state grand juries for allegedly laundering contributions to the 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign and stealing from a $50 million investment in rare coins for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, was chairman of Justice Lanzinger's campaign in 2004.
"The Supreme Court opened the door for potential abuse. This legislation will shut that door," Mr. Grendell said.
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