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Published: Tuesday, 11/14/2006

Convictions mean no one is above law, experts say

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Julia Bates, Lucas County prosecutor, speaks as fellow prosecutors Kevin Dituch, left, Larry Kiroff, and Jeff Lingo listen after the verdict in the Noe case in the Lucas County courthouse. Julia Bates, Lucas County prosecutor, speaks as fellow prosecutors Kevin Dituch, left, Larry Kiroff, and Jeff Lingo listen after the verdict in the Noe case in the Lucas County courthouse.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

COLUMBUS - Tom Noe's conviction is proof of how far Ohio's government slid into corruption under the administrations of two Republican governors, political observers said.

And the jury, investigators say, sent a strong message that no one is above the law.

"No matter how much money you have or how big you think you are, there is always someone who is going to call you on it,'' said state Inspector General Tom Charles. "It is a huge, huge message to those who fool with the state's money."

Even as the verdict made national and world news yesterday, there were few signs that the biggest state government scandal in nearly four decades in Ohio is anywhere near over.

"We still have a lot of work to do, and there will be more to come,'' said Mr. Charles, a key figure in the federal-state task force investigating the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation's investment practices and influence-peddling at the highest level of state government.

Mr. Charles said yesterday that part of the task force has opened an investigation into whether politics influenced the bureau's manipulation of employer premium rates.

The task force and other agencies are involved in other investigations triggered by the Noe probe, including a wide-ranging examination of the bureau's relationships with its money managers that already has led to some criminal charges.

State Sen. Marc Dann, the Youngstown-area Democrat who will take office in January as Ohio attorney general, said yesterday's verdict is a "good start" to making state government more accountable to citizens.

Mr. Dann said he plans to create a public integrity unit in the attorney general's office and part of its work will involve finding out what role others in state government played in the origin of the Noe rare-coin deal.

"It did not happen in a vacuum,'' Mr. Dann said.

Mr. Charles, the inspector general, added that he is "hopeful" that investigators will be able to document in detail how the state's rare-coin investment began.

Noe received his first of two installments of $25 million from the bureau on March 31, 1998 - and within 10 days, Noe and his wife, Bernadette, made $4,500 in political contributions to soon-to-be Gov. Bob Taft and $2,000 to then-Gov. George Voinovich.

Those contributions were among more than $100,000 in Noe political cash that has been returned or sent to the bureau or charities after the scandal erupted.

Neither Mr. Taft - who was convicted on ethics charges in 2005 stemming from the Noe investigation - or Mr. Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, would grant an interview with The Blade yesterday.

Mr. Taft's press secretary, Mark Rickel, said: "Tom Noe had his day in court. The jury spoke, and justice will be served."

In an interview at The Blade's editorial offices in April, 2005, Mr. Taft stood by Noe, accusing the newspaper of "trying to dredge up every conceivable fact that would be harmful to him" and fostering a "vendetta" against the rare-coin dealer. He also defended Noe's rare-coin fund, arguing: "He's making money for the state. What's the problem?"

Mr. Voinovich, who served as governor from 1991 through 1998, has said he didn't know about the bureau's rare-coin investment until he read about it in The Blade's April 3, 2005 edition.

"The senator has always said that this belongs in a courtroom, and not in the political arena. Obviously, justice was served and that is what he always wanted,'' said Chris Paulitz, his press secretary.

James Conrad, a longtime aide to Mr. Voinovich who resigned as the bureau's CEO-administrator in May, 2005, amid the rare-coin scandal, said in an e-mail yesterday: "So many people have been deceived by the corruption and lies of Tom Noe; I am thankful to see that the jury was not."

The Noe verdict is a "reflection of how off-course Ohio had gone in terms of ethical behavior," said Herb Asher, an emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University.

It also demonstrates the crucial role of newspapers in investigating corruption, Mr. Asher said.

"Without The Blade, I don't know if anything ever would have happened,'' he said.

During the past 19 months, The Blade has pursued a wide-ranging investigation of corruption and influence-peddling in state government.

Democrats on Election Day capitalized on the scandal that engulfed the GOP as they won the governor's seat for the first time in 20 years, as well as the posts of attorney general, treasurer, and secretary of state. Ohio also has a new Democratic U.S. senator, Sherrod Brown.

Yesterday, Democratic leaders referred to Noe as a "symptom of a much larger disease of corruption in state and federal politics."

"Clearly, this is the verdict we expected," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "Ohioans already handed down their verdict to Betty Montgomery, Ken Blackwell, and others who allowed the culture of corruption to exist in Ohio."

Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Noe is "emblematic" of the GOP's problems with corruption both in Ohio and nationally.

With Democrats taking power both in Columbus and in Congress, Mr. LaVera said the Noe verdict is a reminder that "it's a great honor to have been given the opportunity to lead and now we have to keep the promises that we've made."

Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, declined comment and a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party didn't return a message seeking comment.

Republican Attorney General Jim Petro said the state will act promptly to pursue its civil lawsuit against Noe to recover money from the rare-coin investment. That lawsuit has been on hold in Franklin County Common Pleas Court because of Noe's criminal trial.

"He owes the Workers' Comp insurance fund millions of dollars,'' said Mark Anthony, Mr. Petro's press secretary.

Through an aide, Gov.-elect Ted Strickland said "justice was served."

"Ohioans now can begin to move beyond this sad chapter in our state's history. Governor-elect Strickland will work every day to provide Ohioans with a government that is as decent and as honest as they are,'' said Keith Dailey, Mr. Strickland's press secretary.

Mr. Asher, also a former member of the Ohio Ethics Commission, said the Noe conviction is an opportunity to examine what went wrong with the checks and balances in government.

"When you think about all the various ethics group, the auditor, and the attorney general; for this to go as far as it did, you have to ask the question, 'Why?' I hope we we this as an opportunity to really say, 'What could have prevented this?' and not just say it is a few rotten apples,'' he said.

James Drew, chief of The Blade's Columbus bureau, contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Eder at:

seder@theblade.com

or 419-724-6272.



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