Tom Noe, the GOP fund-raiser at the heart of Ohio s biggest political scandal in a generation, claimed that pressure from the Bush-Cheney campaign led him to commit the campaign-finance crimes for which he was sentenced yesterday to federal prison.
U.S. District Judge David Katz ordered Noe, 52, to spend 27 months in prison and to pay $136,200 in fines for giving two dozen friends and associates money to attend a high-priced luncheon with President Bush in 2003 in Columbus.
This violation, it appears to me, and I say this advisedly, was ego feeding and a stupid act by Mr. Noe. And I believe he would acknowledge it, Judge Katz said before sentencing the former rare-coin dealer from Maumee. And it has now risen to the tragic height of a criminal matter.
For Noe, the sentencing is but one coda in a political swan song that has swept up Gov. Bob Taft, the Ohio Republican Party, and numerous former and current public officials.
Judge Katz allowed Noe to remain free on bail because he still faces an Oct. 10 trial in Lucas County Common Pleas Court on charges he embezzled more than $3 million from coin funds he managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation.
Yesterday, however, Noe was punished for using friends and associates including several current and former local Republican elected officials to back his candidate for President. He would later become a Bush Pioneer, someone who raised more than $100,000 for the President.
The Noe conduits included Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber, Toledo City Councilman Betty Shultz, former state representative Sally Perz, and former Toledo mayor Donna Owens; two former aides to Governor Taft, and other political and social friends.
Prosecutors said he raised the money in an attempt to win invitations to the White House and the President s ranch in Crawford, Texas.
He did not hesitate to turn his closest friends and associates into criminals, said Seth Uram, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting Noe.
Afterward, Noe said nothing as he left the courthouse with his family. He politely guided his wife Bernadette and their children through a throng of reporters to a waiting car.
We were treated fairly in there, said his attorney, Jon Richardson, who had argued for probation.
But to others, the sentence appeared lenient.
Sue Metzger, a former executive assistant at Noe s former Monclova Township coin shop, was one of the conduits caught up in the case. She testified against Noe before a federal grand jury.
I think anybody that was involved in this feels used, she said after her former boss was sentenced to prison. All told, Noe gave the conduits $45,400 to attend the Bush fund-raiser.
The judge also ordered him to complete two years of supervised release after he leaves prison and to complete 200 hours of community service.
Noe will not have to report to prison until after his criminal trial on the state charges, Judge Katz said. When he does, it will likely be in Florida, the judge said.
Two years ago, Noe was attending parties at the White House and had the ear of Ohio s governor. A college dropout, Noe was appointed to head the Ohio Board of Regents and the Ohio Turnpike Commission; he served on a key committee of the U.S. Mint, and he helped plan and implement the strategy that helped President Bush win Ohio and the nation.
Now he faces time behind bars and possibly an even longer term if he is convicted on the state charges.
The fallout from the Noe scandal has been far-reaching. It contributed to the historic plunge of Governor Taft s approval rating and emboldened Democrats to mount for the first time in years substantial campaigns for numerous statewide offices.
The scandal also contributed to the political downfall of Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, who lost to Ken Blackwell in the Republican primary for governor. Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery, a frequent target of Democrats as the scandal unfolded, dropped out of the governor s race and ran instead for her old job of attorney general. All had received Noe campaign cash.
In Lucas County, conduit Maggie Thurber did not run for re-election for county commissioner.
The former coin dealer made two statements during the hearing. He twice read excerpts from a written statement he gave to court officials prior to sentencing in which he acknowledged his illegal role. But he blamed it in part on pressure from unnamed campaign officials to become a Bush Pioneer, someone who raises more than $100,000 for the campaign.
He said he had friends who wanted to attend the fund-raiser and I wanted to help them attend, he said yesterday.
I knew it was wrong to do so. I alone accept responsibility for what I have done, he said. I m going to repeat that. I knew it was wrong to do so. I alone accept responsibility for what I have done.
Later, just before sentencing, Noe thanked his family, especially his wife Bernadette, whose complaints to the Lucas County prosecutor ultimately sparked the investigation, and concluded by complimenting the judge and expressing regret.
Without her constant support, our marriage would not have survived, and I sometimes question whether I would have survived. My love for her is unmatched, and my respect for her is unending, he said.
I know from your reputation that you are a very fair and a very just man. And I stand before you with deep humility and deep remorse, Noe said.
Judge Katz could have sentenced Noe to a maximum of 30 months or a minimum of two years. He ordered the lowest possible fine. Noe received 27 months for each of the three felony charges to which he pleaded guilty. The judge ordered the sentences to be served concurrently.
... he has risen in the past to positions of respect and power, and he violated the trust of those who placed him in those positions ... Judge Katz said.
Noe was convicted of conspiring to violate federal campaign laws, using the conduits to funnel campaign cash, and causing the Bush-Cheney campaign to file a false finance report. At the time of his indictment, prosecutors said it was the largest conduit case prosecuted since the 2002 campaign finance reform law, which set limits on donations.
The sentence was well below what prosecutors had argued for. Judge Katz rejected their claim that Noe had abused a position of trust as a registered fund-raiser for the Bush-Cheney campaign. He also did not agree that Noe s conduct was systematic and pervasive corruption, which could have also lengthened his sentence.
The biggest surprise was Noe s statement about the pressure from the Bush-Cheney campaign. Brian Hicks, Governor Taft s former chief of staff, was in charge of the Oct. 30, 2003, fund-raiser. Now a Columbus lobbyist, he could not be reached for comment.
Top Republicans in Washington and Columbus rejected Noe s claim of pressure, saying he alone was responsible for the crimes.
Nobody pressured anybody to break the law, said Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party and, like Noe, a top fund-raiser for the 2004 Bush-Cheney effort.
In fact they went overboard to make sure we didn t break the law, he said. For Tom Noe to say something like that is a self-serving statement on his part.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee said there was no pressure on Noe to raise the money or break the law.
Aaron McLear said he didn t know if Noe s comment was a parting shot at the Bush-Cheney campaign because the U.S. Department of Justice pursued the case against him.
As he has said before, the RNC will return the conduit money if authorities order it to do so. The Bush-Cheney campaign last year returned $4,000 that it received from the Noes. The money went to the American Heart Association.
Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Noe s conviction should trigger the return of the money that Noe laundered into the Bush campaign.
I can t possibly fathom why they won t give it back, he said, hinting that the conviction will haunt the GOP in the coming months as the midterm elections near, calling Noe s sentence a victory for the people of Ohio over the culture of corruption that the Bush-Taft-Blackwell Republicans have brought to Columbus and Washington.
Mr. Bennett said he never suspected Noe of wrongdoing until The Blade began writing stories in April, 2005, about problems with the rare-coin funds Noe managed for the state, and investigators began probing.
He slithered into the midst of people who had trust in him, and he violated that trust, he said.
At the height of his political and social career, Noe could leave his half-million-dollar Maumee condo and head for either his million-dollar Catawba Island home or jet down to his $4 million residence on the Atlantic Ocean in the Florida Keys, where he now lives with his wife.
Now, the Maumee condo and the Catawba cottage are sold. And, after his state trial is completed, his destination will likely be in Florida, but in a prison.
Blade Columbus Bureau Chief James Drew contributed to this report.
Contact Mike Wilkinson at: email@example.com or 419-724-6104.