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Published: Wednesday, 3/16/2005

Toledo real estate chief quits amid ethics questions; ex-official denies profiting from deals

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Steven Best, Toledo's commissioner of real estate, resigned yesterday in the wake of ethical questions over his referral of $1.7 million in city-related business to a real estate broker who employed him.

In his letter of resignation, Mr. Best said his resignation from the $75,000-a-year city post was in everyone's best interests.

Mr. Best, 44, had placed his real estate license with Century 21 Kasten Realty to keep it active after starting his job with the city in August, 2003, city officials said.

Mr. Best used Century 21 Kasten Realty to help find a 35-acre site in North Toledo for the city police tow lot and to broker a land deal for a Jaguar car dealership in Sylvania Township that had been referred to the city real estate office for help finding a site.

Mayor Ford said Mr. Best's resignation ends all city administrative and ethics investigations into Mr. Best's activities.

Mr. Best told his supervisors that he did not benefit from either transaction. He could not be reached for comment last night by The Blade.

Councilman Rob Ludeman, a Realtor and a potential Republican candidate for mayor in November, criticized the Ford administration yesterday for dropping the city's investigation into Mr. Best's activities too easily.

"There's a total lack of ethics. He cannot use his position to benefit from a real estate transaction involving the city of Toledo," Mr. Ludeman said of Mr. Best.

Mr. Ford defended his handling of the situation. "We acted very quickly once it was brought to our attention," Mr. Ford said. "We talked with his attorney and indicated what we thought was the appropriate course of action. Coming out of those discussions, he decided to resign."

City officials said they believed Mr. Best used Kasten Realty in both cases because he trusted the firm, which is owned by Dwight Kasten.

Mr. Best was suspended from his job on March 7 with pay. He will be paid by the city through yesterday.

The issue was referred to the mayor's ethics advisory committee. A letter also was sent to the Ohio Ethics Commission requesting an advisory opinion, but the ethics commission staff said it could not issue an advisory opinion on a situation that already had occurred.

Mr. Ford said he received a verbal summary of his ethics advisory committee's findings through city Law Director Barb Herring.

Mr. Best's real estate duties are being handled by his former supervisor, William Carroll, director of economic and community development, and by Ford Weber, a commissioner in the Department of Public Utilities who is a former city manager of real estate.

Mr. Carroll has taken over Mr. Best's role as manager for the Marina District project. Mr. Carroll said he expects to replace Mr. Best soon.

Mr. Best's use of Kasten Realty in the Jaguar deal came to light two weeks ago. His attorney, Marvin Robon, said last night that he believed his client did not earn any commission on the Jaguar deal. He also contended that city officials knew of Mr. Best's connection with Kasten Realty but may have forgotten.

Jay Black, Jr., the mayor's chief of staff, denied that assertion.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Best indicated that the city's request that he give up his Ohio and Michigan real estate licenses to maintain his commissioner's job was asking too much.

"[If] my employment with the city did not work out for any reason, I would most likely have to wait for reinstatement plus pay additional fees to become licensed [again]," Mr. Best wrote.

Mr. Best became involved in the Jaguar deal after businessman Walter Douglas of Southfield, Mich., contacted Mayor Ford last year about establishing a Jaguar dealership in the Toledo market.

At Mr. Ford's direction, Mr. Best showed Mr. Douglas property downtown and on Central Avenue in Sylvania Township, but the sites didn't suit Mr. Douglas.

The mayor said that because of his commitment to regional economic development, he urged Mr. Best to help Mr. Douglas find a suitable site somewhere else in Lucas County. Mr. Best referred Mr. Douglas to Kasten Realty, which helped find two parcels at 7585 West Central Ave. in Sylvania Township for the dealership.

Douglas Ventures LLC paid $968,000 for about 2.5 acres on Dec. 27, 2004.

Mr. Black said Kasten was used to search for property for the city to use as a police tow lot.

City council on March 8 approved the purchase of 35 acres at 198 and 4505 Dura Ave. for $708,000.

However, city officials said Kasten has agreed not to seek its commission in the city's tow lot deal in the wake of questions about Mr. Best's potential conflict of interest.

Mr. Kasten has not returned phone calls from The Blade seeking comment. Mr. Best's wife, Eileen, also maintains a real estate agent license with Kasten Realty, state records show.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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