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Published: 9/28/2005

STATE OF TURMOIL

Democrats seek to limit contractors' campaign donations

BY JOSHUA BOAK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Democratic state legislators will propose today knotting the loopholes in the 20-year-old law designed to restrict campaign donations from Ohio's contractors.

State Rep. William Healy II (D., Canton) said he worked on the bill for months, although he was still finalizing its language yesterday afternoon. He said much of the bill's content matched the analysis from a recent article and editorial in The Blade.

"If you were asking us to base a bill off your editorial, I don't know if it could have been any closer," he said yesterday.

He said his proposal fits into a package of bills that Democrats expect to propose during the next year that will feature other pieces of legislation written to curb ethical violations and suspect practices by state officials.

"We want to let people know that we do have an agenda; we do have ideas," Mr. Healy said.

Modeled on a set of policies in New Jersey, the bill is expected to say that executives at companies receiving state money could give no more than $250 each to statewide candidates and political parties two years before receiving a contract and during the length of the contract, said state Sen. Marc Dann (D., Warren), one of the bill's sponsors.

Mr. Healy declined to verify those details, explaining that he did not want to precede today's announcement.

Mark Rickel, a spokesman for Gov. Bob Taft, said the governor would comment on the bill once it is introduced.

Mr. Rickel has previously said that the governor supports "full disclosure" and believes that the current limits are appropriate, despite a recent decision by the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation to adopt restrictions similar to the proposed legislation.

"Obviously, they weren't adequate to stop [Governor Taft] from soliciting contributors and awarding contracts to contributors, to the extent that it cost $1 billion on workers' comp," said Mr. Dann, referring to the bureau's underperformance from poor management of its $14.3 billion state insurance fund.

The bureau maintained a stable of Taft donors as investment advisers, including Tom Noe, who managed rare-coin funds worth a combined $50 million that are now missing as much as $13 million.

Under current regulations, individuals working for state contractors can give no more than $1,000 to a candidate in the two calendar years prior to a contract's approval.

But after receiving a contract, they can escape the $1,000 limit and help underwrite an upcoming campaign. Mr. Noe gave Mr. Taft $2,000 on April 7, 1998, weeks after the bureau approved his plan to invest in rare coins.

Republican legislators intend to hold off on any proposals until investigations about the bureau's investment practices are complete, said Maggie Ostrowski, a spokesman for the Republican Legislative Caucus.

Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, said the problem with existing laws was enforcement, a bureaucratic handicap that turns a supposedly transparent system into an opaque one.

"Agencies that police campaign finance and ethical issues do not have the ability to access information stored with other agencies," said Mr. LoParo, who explained that Mr. Blackwell wanted to foster internal cooperation and make better campaign finance records available to everyone via the Internet.

Catherine Turcer, legislative director for Ohio Citizen Action, a government watchdog, said she supported reform but cautioned that legislation alone would not cause issues such as the give-to-get method of campaign finance to disappear.

"We need to own up that there's no magic cure-all except vigilant citizens and putting in buffers between the government and those who are trying to get something from the government," Ms. Turcer said.

Contact Joshua Boak at:

jboak@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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