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Former senator in Ohio may face BWC charges

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Ex-state senator Jeffry Armbruster declined to say whether he received a complaint from a joint ethics panel.

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COLUMBUS - A former state senator may face criminal prosecution for allegedly contacting the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation about reducing his company's premium rates while he was serving in the state legislature.

Jeffry Armbruster, a Cleveland-area Republican, was served with a complaint in December from the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, two Statehouse sources said yesterday on the condition of anonymity. The panel consists of 12 legislators from the House and Senate - six Republicans and six Democrats.

Based on a preliminary investigation, Mr. Armbruster is accused of meeting with bureau officials at his Statehouse office to discuss the workers' compensation premium rate of his company, Armbruster Energy Stores, which operates a gasoline service station in Grafton.

The bureau reduced the rate that the firm paid in 2005 by 88 percent, a cut which continued in 2006, bureau spokesman Keary McCarthy said. He would not provide details, citing the investigation that the inspector general opened in November into the bureau granting premium rate cuts to some employers.

State law prohibits legislators from using their influence for personal gain.

"Have I violated something? I don't know,'' said Mr. Armbruster, who was barred by term limits from running for re-election last year to a district that covers Lorain and Huron counties, and the eastern half of Seneca County. "That's not up to me to make that decision."

Mr. Armbruster declined to confirm or deny whether he had received the complaint from the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, citing state law which prohibits public disclosure of its closed-door meetings until the panel takes formal action.

At least eight of the 12 committee members must vote in favor of referring a complaint for prosecution.

If so, it would be up to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien whether to charge Mr. Armbruster with a misdemeanor charge of conflict of interest. The penalty is up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

In December, in response to a public-records request, the workers' compensation bureau released about 500 pages of correspondence documenting its communications with legislators and state officials.

A review of the documents indicates that lawmakers and state officials have used their aides to lobby the bureau for premium rate decreases for business owners who contacted their government offices.

Records released in December by the bureau included a March 24, 2006, e-mail from Elizabeth Bravender, director of the bureau's actuarial section, to chief financial officer Tracy Valentino.

"This is Senator Armbruster's business. I believe that this is not the first time we have helped him/his business out,'' wrote Ms. Bravender. "I am sending this to let you know that my name on the e-mail does not implicitly mean that I approve of this action."

Between 2003 and most of 2005, the bureau's executive staff on 27 occasions ordered the division of employer operations to change premium rates or injury histories without sufficient documentation, according to the bureau's internal audit. The bureau has not disclosed the names of the businesses that benefited from the changes.

In total, the executive staff ordered 179 such changes between 2003 and most of 2005.

"If it's true, his actions leave more to be desired from an elected official," said Randy Borntrager, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. "We need to make sure that these types of things never happen again where a politician is enriching his business or himself through his public office."

Contact James Drew at:

jdrew@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.

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