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Published: Friday, 5/12/2006

Noe lawyers ask top critic to assist with plea bargain

BY MIKE WILKINSON AND JAMES DREW
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

In an attempt to reduce Tom Noe's potential prison time, his attorneys have sought the help from perhaps the most unlikely place: State Sen. Marc Dann, the firebrand Democrat who has been the most vocal critic of Mr. Noe and the Taft administration.

Mr. Dann, who has sued Gov. Bob Taft for access to records in an effort to unravel the scandal known as Coingate, said yesterday that Mr. Noe's attorneys asked him to help convince federal prosecutors that he could provide valuable help in the ongoing investigation into the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

They went to Fred Gittes, who is representing Mr. Dann in the case before the Ohio Supreme Court, within the last few months and told him that Mr. Noe "had information helpful to upstream prosecutions," Mr. Dann said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Noe indicated he wanted to change his not-guilty plea on federal charges that he funneled more than $45,000 into the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2003. By law, individuals such as Mr. Noe were only allowed to contribute $2,000 to the campaign.

A court date for plea change has not been set.

Mr. Dann said Mr. Noe's attorneys, whom he declined to identify, sought him to spur plea bargain negotiations.

Dann Dann
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Mr. Dann, the Democratic nominee for attorney general opposite Republican Betty Montgomery, said he did not go to prosecutors with the information because it was not his place.

He said the offer itself indicates that Mr. Noe has reached an agreement with the U.S. attorney's office.

Bill Wilkinson, one of Mr. Noe's attorneys, declined comment yesterday. His Toledo-based attorneys also did not return calls yesterday. Federal prosecutors declined comment.

It is widely expected that Mr. Noe will plead either guilty or no contest to one or more of the three campaign-funding charges. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could get a reduced sentence if he accepts responsibility for the charges and a greater reduction if he cooperates in other investigations.

Democrats have seized on the news of an impending plea with relish. It would enable them to identify Mr. Noe as an admitted, convicted felon during the upcoming election campaigns that are seen as crucial both in Ohio and across the country.

Bill Binning, a political science professor at Youngstown State University, tempered those dreams. He said the biggest threat to the GOP is Mr. Noe facing trial on the state charges.

Mr. Noe has pleaded not guilty to 53 felony charges in Lucas County related to his alleged theft or laundering of more than $3 million from two rare-coin funds he operated on behalf of the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation. An Aug. 29 trial date has been set.

"I think a plea on the federal charges is good for the GOP, unless he gives some other people up in the plea. It would be damaging if there are some leading Republicans who were getting fingered in this. But I don't think the federal charges are as significant because they don't have a lot of reach around the state like Coingate, which is more treacherous water for the Republicans," said Mr. Binning, a former chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party.

A trial on the state charges would resurrect all of the allegations swirling around the GOP control over state government, Mr. Binning said.

"If he puts his arm around other people and starts to tell stories, that could be a real train wreck for the GOP," he said.

At a news conference yesterday, Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, used the opportunity to take the news national, again calling on President Bush to return $45,400 to the Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

In Columbus, Mr. Redfern, a state representative from Ottawa County, said a deal with Mr. Noe could help investigators understand how the "pay-to-play system" worked in Ohio.

"If you do cut a deal, which [Mr. Noe] is about to, what does the state or the federal government get out of it? It's information - providing names, times, and dates," Mr. Redfern said.

After the coin-fund scandal unfolded last year, additional questions were raised about the bureau's other investments, including a $215 million loss in an offshore hedge fund managed by a Pittsburgh firm with ties to a Cleveland power broker, Democrat George Forbes. Mr. Forbes was a member of the bureau's Oversight Commission.

A federal grand jury in Cleveland is hearing testimony and reviewing evidence about broader problems within the investment department of the bureau.

Republicans dismissed talk that any plea or conviction would affect GOP candidates.

"I think we're confident in our candidates and I think we're confident in our message," said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

The Bush campaign and the RNC have given $6,000 in contributions from Mr. Noe and his wife to charity. A decision on the other money will come later, he said.

"We will continue to fully cooperate with the investigation as we have been throughout this process and will take other actions as appropriate," he said.

Like Mr. Redfern, Mr. Dann believes Mr. Noe was given $50 million in state money for the coin funds with help from public officials. He feels authorities should listen to what Mr. Noe has to say because of its broader implications.

"What he knows about is the system and the process," Mr. Dann said.

A report released in February by Ms. Montgomery, the current state auditor, harshly criticized the bureau for lax oversight of the coin funds and other investments. The report said the bureau held Mr. Noe to a lower standard than other investment firms and failed to monitor the coin funds and other investments.

In Columbus, Mr. Redfern said the "conduits" for Mr. Noe's Bush money should be held accountable, including Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber; former Toledo Mayor Donna Owens, an appointee of Gov. Bob Taft to the state Industrial Commission, and Toledo Councilman Betty Shultz.

A Scioto County attorney, Lynn Grimshaw, has been selected as a special prosecutor to review the ethics cases against those women and former state Rep. Sally Perz. All four have been listed in a federal document as Noe conduits. Mr. Grimshaw has not announced whether he intends to charge them with a crime.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates reiterated yesterday that her office has not talked with Mr. Noe's attorneys about a plea agreement. She said her staff is preparing for a trial that could lead to dozens of years in prison for Mr. Noe if he is convicted on all charges.

John McClelland, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said Democrats have failed to talk about anything other than the scandal while the GOP's candidates are talking about "the real issues."

"If Tom Noe is found guilty or pleads guilty, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Mr. McClelland said. "The Republican Party is focused on the real issues facing the state: education, jobs, improving the economy. It's time the Democrats realize this election is about a lot more than Tom Noe or Bob Taft."

Contact Mike Wilkinson at:

mwilkinson@theblade.com

or 419-724-6104.



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