COLUMBUS - In the months leading to her husband's trial on felony charges that he stole from the rare-coin funds he managed for the state of Ohio, Bernadette Noe held out a tantalizing prospect for Democrats.
It was the videotape of Tom Noe's 50th birthday party roast - a tape that could launch 30-second TV attack ads against GOP candidates like so many shells from a cannon.
The event, held Aug. 24, 2004, at the Holland Gardens dining hall as a fund-raiser for the Lucas County Republican Party, starred U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, Gov. Bob Taft, Auditor Betty Montgomery, and Attorney General Jim Petro - all reminiscing about Tom Noe with a blend of humor and seriousness less than a year before scandal erupted.
Last May 17, Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, accepted an invitation to meet with Ms. Noe, a former chairman of the Lucas County GOP, at a suburban Columbus restaurant. They were joined by the Democratic Party's press secretary, Brian Rothenberg, and Ms. Noe's Columbus attorney, Charles Ticknor.
A week earlier, her husband had asked a federal judge to set a hearing so he could change his not-guilty plea to federal charges that he illegally funneled money into President Bush's re-election campaign. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.
About the same time Ms. Noe decided to meet with top state Democrats, Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates, a Democrat, was preparing for Tom Noe's trial in Toledo on dozens of felony charges that he stole more than $2 million from the $50 million state rare-coin fund he managed. The prosecutor had said publicly she was not negotiating a plea deal with Noe.
Mr. Rothenberg said he and Mr. Redfern wanted to talk with Ms. Noe about the origin of the rare-coin investment with the bureau. Democrats had long thought that Noe had to have the backing of former Governor Voinovich and Mr. Taft to convince Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation officials to hand over to him $50 million to invest in rare coins.
"She either did not know, or she was being cryptic about what she knew," Mr. Rothenberg said last week. "She mostly talked about this tape. I got the feeling that she felt it was something like a holy grail."
Ms. Noe didn't provide a copy. She wanted to talk about something else.
"Ms. Noe began discussing in a candid way her disappointment in the Lucas County prosecutor's refusal to speak with Mr. Noe about a plea, indicating [Noe] had knowledge of the fund-raising system" of the Republican Party, Mr. Rothenberg said.
He said she also expressed disappointment with one of the speakers at the roast, Ms. Montgomery, who Ms. Noe said had been close to her husband.
Mr. Rothenberg said that at the May 17 meeting Ms. Noe complained about how statewide GOP elected officials - especially Ms. Montgomery - had been close to the Noes but "now acted as if they hardly knew them."
Mr. Redfern and Mr. Rothenberg said Ms. Noe and Mr. Ticknor never asked them to approach Ms. Bates about a plea agreement for her husband or linked release of the video to a potential plea deal.
"I was very clear and Chris [Redfern] was very clear that we had no influence over Julia Bates, nor did we wish to talk to Julia Bates about it," Mr. Rothenberg said.
But the Democratic Party leaders, trying to unmask the motives of Ms. Noe and her attorney, believed the two were hinting that the embattled rare-coin dealer had a lot of valuable information for prosecutors and that release of the video could hurt the careers of the well-known GOP politicians who were distancing themselves from the Noes.
"There are only two reasons why Bernadette Noe would meet with the chairman of the Democratic Party in the spring of 2006. One, political retribution; two, to find out if she could cut a deal," said Mr. Redfern, a state representative from Ottawa County.
Mr. Redfern said he sought guidance from two key Lucas County Democrats, and Ms. Bates called him. The topic of a plea agreement never was discussed, Mr. Redfern said. Ms. Bates declined to comment for this article, citing Noe's ongoing trial, which is entering its third week.
Ms. Noe and her attorney, Mr. Ticknor, also declined to comment for this article.
In early September, Mr. Rothenberg left the Ohio Democratic Party to become executive director of a new liberal advocacy group called ProgressOhio.org.
He said last week that he first learned about the 50th birthday roast videotape in early March, when Mr. Ticknor met with him and Mr. Redfern at Ohio Democratic Party headquarters in Columbus. Mr. Ticknor requested the meeting, Mr. Rothenberg said.
Mr. Rothenberg said he received another invitation from Ms. Noe's attorney, this time to come to the Columbus law offices of Buckingham, Doolittle, and Burroughs on Sept. 27 to watch parts of the roast tape.
When he arrived, he was taken to a conference room where Mr. Ticknor was waiting to show him the videotape. He was asked not to take notes.
Ms. Noe's lawyer showed him only portions of the tape, including testimonials by Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, Auditor Montgomery, Senator Voinovich, and Governor Taft.
"[Betty Montgomery] told childhood stories including one about [Tom] getting in trouble with the nuns in school. ... She told a few other lighthearted family-type stories about Noe getting into bad-boy type scrapes - ironic considering the trouble he is in now and the fact that Montgomery acts as though she hardly knew Noe," Mr. Rothenberg wrote about what he saw on the tape as soon as he left the Sept. 27 meeting.
He provided his written account to The Blade, comparing the event to a Dean Martin roast.
"Montgomery talked about her sorority sister and friend, Noe's sister; and referred to stories about watching Tom grow up and his importance to Ohio, and northwest Ohio. There was clearly a genial banter between a seated Noe and Montgomery," Mr. Rothenberg wrote.
Jen Detwiler, Ms. Montgomery's spokesman, said in a written statement that Ms. Montgomery "told a few short stories she had learned from Bernadette about Tom's childhood."
Ms. Montgomery attended college with Tom Noe's sister, Beth, three decades ago, Ms. Detwiler said. According to Bowling Green State University yearbooks, Ms. Montgomery and Noe's sister were members of the Phi Mu sorority in the late 1960s.
"Betty has never been a social friend of Tom and Bernadette Noe, but they were political acquaintances and worked with them and other northwest Ohio Republican leaders to elect Republican candidates," Ms. Detwiler wrote.
Mr. Rothenberg said the next speaker he watched on the roast video was Mr. Voinovich, who talked about meeting Noe through Paul Mifsud after Mr. Voinovich lost to Democratic U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum in 1988.
In 1993 testimony, as part of divorce proceedings with his first wife, Tom Noe was asked if becoming chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party had enhanced his rare-coin business.
"I think it's kept me alive," said Noe, who added that Mifsud, then Governor Voinovich's chief of staff, had introduced him to GOP party chairmen in northeast Ohio who "control a lot of money."
Mr. Mifsud died in 2000, two years after he served six months in a jail-work release program after pleading guilty to accepting a home-improvement project at a cut rate from a contractor who had received millions of dollars in unbid state contracts.
"Mr. Voinovich then launched into the rareness of Noe's dual roles on the Turnpike Commission and the Ohio Board of Regents and on how he took care of things politically in northwest Ohio," wrote Mr. Rothenberg.
"He then concluded by stating that Noe was his northwest Ohio 'consiglieri' and told the audience, 'And you all know what that means' to great laughter." "A consiglieri is an adviser or counselor, especially to a capo or leader, of an organized crime syndicate," according to answers.com.
Chris Paulitz, Mr. Voinovich's press secretary, said Friday Mr. Voinovich could not recall whether he used the word "consiglieri" referring to Noe but that his comments were in jest because he was speaking at a roast. "He was invited to give a humorous speech, and he gave a humorous speech," Mr. Paulitz said.
Last year, Mr. Voinovich told The Blade: "I'll never forget that night because there was supposed to be a roast, but I'm not very good at roasting. I just basically congratulated him as a person that's very busy that could have been out playing golf and doing a lot of other things that he gave of his time to his responsibilities in terms of higher education, and I think at the time he had taken on the turnpike responsibilities."
A source close to Ms. Noe confirmed the accuracy of Mr. Rothenberg's written account, on the condition of anonymity.
Several who attended the roast either didn't return phone messages or said they couldn't recall much of what was said.
As he watched the roast videotape on Sept. 27, Mr. Rothenberg said he offered to post the video on his group's Web site and require people to submit their e-mails to see it. Ms. Noe then could have access to the e-mail list to offer her side of the story, Mr. Rothenberg said.
Mr. Ticknor said he would take that offer to Ms. Noe, but "that they still hoped for a plea bargain," according to Mr. Rothenberg's written account.
"He said she would not want to do anything until after the 10th of October passes and a plea bargain is not a possibility," Mr. Rothenberg wrote, referring to the start of the trial in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.
Even now, with Election Day nearly two weeks away, Mr. Rothenberg said he remains puzzled about why Ms. Noe and her attorney approached him and Mr. Redfern.
He also wonders if Ms. Noe ever will release the video.
Mr. Redfern said if Ms. Noe had given him a copy of the video, the Ohio Democratic Party would have used it to document "the relationship that existed between Tom Noe and a collection of statewide elected Republicans and show it in their own words."
Blade Staff Writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.
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In the months leading to her husband's trial on felony charges that he stole from the rare-coin funds he managed for the state of Ohio, Bernadette Noe held out a tantalizing prospect for Democrats. It was the videotape of Tom Noe's 50th birthday party roast - a tape that could launch 30-second TV attack ads against GOP candidates like so many shells from a cannon.