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Published: Sunday, 10/8/2006

Kidd's 'wrong choice' led to Noe's downfall

BY JAMES DREW
AND MIKE WILKINSON
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

First of two parts

In the fall of 2003, President Bush was in a race to raise as much campaign cash as quickly as he could, but to do so he needed help across the country.

In Toledo, Tom Noe was the President's man.

So in late October, 2003, Noe and his wife, Bernadette, strode into Joe Kidd's office at the Lucas County Board of Elections and closed the door. Tom Noe and Mr. Kidd, the elections director, had talked about the deal on the phone. The Bush fund-raiser told Mr. Kidd to bring his checkbook to work.

As Ms. Noe took a call on her cell phone, Mr. Kidd pulled out a check for $2,000 to attend a Bush fund-raiser in Columbus on Oct. 30 and handed it to Tom Noe.

Then Noe gave Mr. Kidd a check for $1,950.

Mr. Kidd would only have to pay $50 for the $2,000-a-plate luncheon. The rest was on Tom.

Joe Kidd's longtime friend, Jon Stainbrook, left, visits with Mr. Kidd at Mr. Kidd's Detroit loft. Mr. Kidd's hiring of Mr. Stainbrook to work with the board of elections once enraged Lucas County Auditor Larry Kaczala, who was challenged by Mr. Stainbrook in a primary race. Joe Kidd's longtime friend, Jon Stainbrook, left, visits with Mr. Kidd at Mr. Kidd's Detroit loft. Mr. Kidd's hiring of Mr. Stainbrook to work with the board of elections once enraged Lucas County Auditor Larry Kaczala, who was challenged by Mr. Stainbrook in a primary race.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo

"It was just another day in politics," Mr. Kidd said in a recent interview, his first since the Noe scandal broke last year. "Tom said, 'I'm making the rounds. I'll see you later.'•"

Federal prosecutors, aided by Mr. Kidd, proved that Noe poured more than $45,000 into the President's campaign to become a Bush "Pioneer" - a distinction posted on the campaign Web site for those who raised at least $100,000.

On Sept. 12, a federal judge sentenced Noe to 27 months in prison and ordered him to pay $136,200 in fines for illegally laundering the money through two dozen friends and associates to the Bush/Cheney campaign.

Noe, 52, is awaiting his stay in federal prison as he prepares for a trial in Lucas County Common Pleas Court on dozens of felony charges that he embezzled more than $2 million from two rare-coin investment funds he set up and managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

The trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Tom Noe declined to be interviewed for this article.

As the two longtime GOP operatives exchanged checks, Mr. Kidd, an attorney, knew he and Noe were breaking the law, according to an affidavit that the FBI filed in federal court. Mr. Kidd had sat in campaign-finance law seminars with Tom Noe. Among the rules: You can't give money to a candidate in another person's name.

But Mr. Kidd knew the law rarely was enforced and that he wasn't the first, nor the last, campaign "conduit" in America.

If he had said no to Noe, his political career would be over because he wouldn't have been trusted, said Mr. Kidd, 42.

"I did what I did out of fear. But looking back on it, obviously that was the wrong choice," he added.

In addition to Noe friends and family - including Bernadette's brother, Joe Restivo, a former Blade executive - a who's who of prominent area Republicans made similar bad choices, including Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber, Toledo City Councilman Betty Shultz, former Toledo Mayor Donna Owens, and former state Rep. Sally Perz.

The four women testified before a federal grand jury investigating Noe. All four were found guilty of violating state ethics laws for accepting the money, but not disclosing it to the Ohio Ethics Commission. They were each fined $1,000 plus the cost of the investigation, pushing their bill to over $5,000 each.

Ms. Shultz told investigators that she agreed to take Tom Noe's money to attend the fund-raiser only after Bernadette Noe put "extreme pressure" on her to attend. Ms. Noe never was charged with a crime.

At the time of her conviction, Ms. Perz said she made a mistake when she trusted Tom Noe and took part in the scheme.

"I have paid a price for misplacing that trust," she said in a written statement. "It's been a painful lesson to learn and I have learned it."

Less than six months after the October, 2003, Bush fund-raiser in Columbus, Joe Kidd faced another difficult choice.

Ms. Noe had accused him of taking a $2,000 cash bribe from a consultant for Diebold, the voting-machine manufacturer he had secured for the county, and Lucas County prosecutors wanted to talk to him.

As he weighed whether to tell prosecutors everything, some of his closest friends discouraged him from talking. They knew what this could mean - for Tom and the party.

What happened next changed many lives. Instead of defending himself against Ms. Noe's accusation, Mr. Kidd made one of his own: Tom and Bernadette Noe had arranged for him to become an illegal campaign conduit - to President Bush.

His story ignited the investigation that ended with Tom Noe's conviction and sentencing in federal court last month.

It also cast Mr. Kidd in the role of someone who abandoned loyalty.

Mr. Kidd said the cell phone call Ms. Noe took the day she and her husband came to his elections board office to pick up his check for the President may have saved her from criminal prosecution because she did not participate in the transaction. He said Ms. Noe no longer was on her cell phone when her husband said as the couple left the elections board: "I'm making the rounds. I'll see you later."

According to the federal affidavit, the $1,950 check Tom Noe handed Mr. Kidd after being given the $2,000 check for the Bush/Cheney campaign was written from the joint account of Tom and Bernadette Noe at National City Bank.

Prosecutors won't say why Ms. Noe was not charged in the scheme. Last month, she told The Blade she didn't know about the illegal campaign contributions made by her husband until shortly before an FBI raid of their Maumee condo in April, 2005.

Yesterday, in an e-mail sent to The Blade, Ms. Noe said she does not recall the meeting. She also said there would have been nothing unusual if Tom and Joe were meeting.

Mr. Kidd, who received immunity from federal prosecution in exchange for his testimony against Noe, said he was increasingly troubled by taking part in Noe's scheme.

"If I was going to live with myself, I had to do something to make it right," he told The Blade.

How Joseph A. Kidd arrived at that juncture in his life is a cautionary tale of politics, an often-brutal pursuit in which ambition often trumps friendship and betrayal always is right around the corner.

He grew up in Toledo's North End, the son of factory workers. He was 13 when his parents were divorced, moving with his mother to Springfield Township. At the age of 8, he was watching politics on TV and reading about it.

"Don't forget to vote for Nixon," he recalls telling his mother as she left their house on Election Day in 1972.

Barbara Kidd was a liberal Democrat.

Her father was a coal miner from Kentucky. As a young child, she lived in a dirt-floor shack.

"My mom always thought that government should provide a safety net and take care of people. I always thought that was wrong," said Mr. Kidd, who said in 1994 he would have described himself as a Republican who believed that government power should be minimized.

A University of Toledo graduate, Mr. Kidd worked as a volunteer on George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign and Donna Owens' failed re-election bid for mayor in 1989.

That's when he met Republican David Lewandowski, the Lucas County auditor.

"Sharp, young guy with a great sense of humor," recalled Mr. Lewandowski, who first hired Mr. Kidd as a summer intern and then for a position in the auditor's legal department.

When Mr. Lewandowski became a Lucas County Domestic Relations Court judge, he picked Mr. Kidd as his law clerk.

In an overwhelmingly Democratic county, Mr. Kidd soon began to stand out. He did a scathing ad for Gene Zmuda in his 1992 campaign for county prosecutor against Tony Pizza.

Nearly two years after Tom Noe became chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party, he picked the 29-year-old Mr. Kidd to replace Steve DeBolt as the party's executive director.

"I need guys like you," Mr. Kidd recalled Noe telling him.

It was the start of a close relationship "built on politics," Mr. Kidd said.

They became a political couple of sorts: Noe, the coin dealer and GOP fund-raiser, and Mr. Kidd, the GOP operative and young buck who shared the same name as the character in a 1972 Clint Eastwood film. They even had an occasional karaoke act: "Tom from Toledo and Joey K." Noe's signature song was "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

"When Tom saw a singer he didn't like and was bombing, he would try to save them by singing over them. He was the total microphone hog, the star," recalled Mr. Kidd.

But Mr. Kidd said Noe didn't shine when they went to Fifth Third Bank to ask executives for contributions to the Lucas County Republican Party.

Holding an empty soft-drink can, Noe repeatedly tried to drink from it and played with the can's pop-top tab, Mr. Kidd said.

Mr. Kidd said he thought Noe was intimidated by the bankers because he was a college dropout.

Even though he went to political events and socialized with Noe, Mr. Kidd said he learned more about him from other people. Noe didn't share much about his life, Mr. Kidd said.

"It was all very superficial, back-slapping, joking kinds of things. While I knew Tom, I didn't really know him," he said.

Mr. Kidd said he didn't understand why Noe acted like a wealthy businessman but drove a Honda Accord.

In 1995, Noe resigned as chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party.

Mr. Kidd eventually joined a Toledo law firm and he kept in touch with Noe, who was appointed by Republican Gov. George Voinovich to the Bowling Green State University board of trustees and then to the Ohio Board of Regents.

Mr. Kidd said wherever he went with Noe, the Toledo area coin dealer knew someone with connections.

Noe made a call in 1995 to help Mr. Kidd get back into law school at the University of Toledo. Mr. Kidd worked for a Toledo law firm from 1998 to 2002.

Mr. Kidd also said he accepted a few hundred dollars from Noe over the years after he resigned as party chairman.

And when Mr. Kidd's wife became a special counsel for Attorney General Jim Petro with Ms. Noe, the Noes provided about $8,000 to buy computers, software, and other equipment for the office.

But the money was paid back, Mr. Kidd said.

In the spring of 2002, Mr. Kidd received a phone call from Tom and Bernadette Noe as they were stuck in traffic near their home in the Florida Keys.

The Noes asked Mr. Kidd if he knew anyone interested in replacing Toni Szuch as director of the Lucas County Board of Elections. Noe served on the four-member, bipartisan board.

Mr. Kidd said he pledged his support to John Birmingham, Jr.

"They said, 'No way in hell,'•" recalled Mr. Kidd, who said the Noes told him the former Young Republican activist "had a reputation for not being serious."

The Noes asked Mr. Kidd if he was interested. A few days later, after talking about it with his wife, Tracy, Mr. Kidd decided to take the job.

A month later, Ms. Noe, a Toledo attorney and former Bowling Green State University fund-raiser, became Lucas County Republican Party chairman.

Mr. Kidd said he took the job in part because he felt he was following the path taken by his mentor, Judge Lewandowski, who also had been the No. 2 man at the Lucas County Republican Party and director of the board of elections.



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