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Published: Sunday, 6/26/2005

STATE OF TURMOIL

Emerging scandals put Taft family's reputation in peril

BY STEVE EDER
AND JAMES DREW
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Governor Taft's great-grandfather, former President William Howard Taft, left, and his grandfather, future Sen. Robert A. Taft, right, are captured in a 1918 photo of the family. Governor Taft's great-grandfather, former President William Howard Taft, left, and his grandfather, future Sen. Robert A. Taft, right, are captured in a 1918 photo of the family.
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COLUMBUS - Embracing his place in a political dynasty that boasted a U.S. president and a chief justice of the Supreme Court, and two senators, Bob Taft vowed in 1999 as he became governor to carry on the tradition that ingrained the Tafts as Ohio's first family.

"The Taft family has worked hard to earn a reputation for common sense, for getting things done to help others, and for striving to live up to the highest standards of honesty and personal integrity," Mr. Taft said in his first inaugural address. "And that's the kind of administration I'll lead," he vowed.

More than six years later, Mr. Taft finds himself enveloped in an investment scandal. He's staring down calls for his resignation amid accusations that he broke state law and lost control of his administration.

In the past month, Mr. Taft has forced the resignation of the head of the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, removed a top aide from the governor's office, and hired one of the nation's top white-collar crime attorneys to represent himself as he faces an investigation for ethics violations.

Worse yet, critics believe enough damage already has been done to tarnish not only his own reputation but the Taft family name, which spans more than 160 years of public service in Ohio.

"He has spoiled an impeccable record of forebears,'' said David H. Burton, who has written five books on President William Howard Taft, Governor Taft's great-grandfather. "One would have said if he was not a good governor from the point of view of being effective, at least he would keep a low profile on that and a high profile on his integrity."

Republicans say Mr. Taft, 63, will overcome his admission on Tuesday that he failed to disclose golf outings on his annual ethics statement as state law requires.

"This is a tough time for the governor, but he is a resilient person and an honorable man," said Mark Weaver, a GOP political consultant. "I think he is going to finish his term in a lot better position than he is in now."

A 3-month free fall

Term limits bar Mr. Taft from running for a third consecutive term in 2006, and several Republicans privately said well before the Bureau of Workers' Compensation scandal that Mr. Taft had no political future because of his weak leadership skills.

Some Democrats say the loudest push for Mr. Taft's resignation may come from Republicans, fearful they will lose control of statewide offices in next year's election.

"The problem he has now is he is left with two defenses, 'I was incompetent or I was crooked,' " said Dale Butland, a former aide to retired Democratic U.S. Sen. John Glenn, the former astronaut. "Either one of them does not do much for the family legacy."

George Voinovich, who preceded Bob Taft as governor, and Mr. Taft answer questions about a campaign-finance reform package in 1991. Mr. Taft was secretary of state at the time. George Voinovich, who preceded Bob Taft as governor, and Mr. Taft answer questions about a campaign-finance reform package in 1991. Mr. Taft was secretary of state at the time.
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In Cincinnati, where the Taft name is attached to schools and roadways, the scandal threatening to take the governor down has hit hard.

"It would appear the days of the Taft family dominating politics in Ohio and Cincinnati are over," said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, who said Mr. Taft always has "struck him as a very decent guy who wants to help but who doesn't get his hands dirty."

Mr. Taft has been in a free fall for nearly three months.

First, he defended the state's $50 million investment in rare-coin funds controlled by Tom Noe, a Toledo-area coin dealer and Republican fund-raiser.

In addition to hosting fund-raisers and asking others to give, Mr. Noe and his wife, Bernadette, have contributed more than $200,000 to local, state, and federal GOP candidates, parties, and political action committees over the past 15 years, including $21,494 since 1998 to Mr. Taft.

Mr. Taft reappointed Mr. Noe to the Ohio Board of Regents and also named him to the Ohio Turnpike Commission. After the state decided to liquidate the rare-coin investment, Mr. Noe stepped down from both posts.

Four days after The Blade reported on April 3 that the state had invested in rare-coin funds controlled by Mr. Noe, Mr. Taft said: "You're trying to kill him for some reason. I don't know why."

During an interview, the governor was asked why Mr. Noe, a generous contributor to the governor's campaign who dropped out of college during his freshman year to work for a South Carolina coin dealer, had been appointed to the Ohio Board of Regents, which controls higher education in the state.

Mr. Taft fired back: "What's that got to do with the price of eggs in Siberia? That's ridiculous."

Then, as the news broke in May that $10 million to $12 million was missing from the rare-coin fund investment and Mr. Noe was facing criminal investigations, Mr. Taft said the bureau had made a "bad decision" by investing with the "wrong person." That led to the forced resignation of the bureau's administrator, James Conrad, a veteran top state bureaucrat whose nickname was "Mr. Fix-it."

In addition to the investigation into the missing coin fund assets, Mr. Noe faces a federal probe by federal authorities into whether he laundered money into the re-election campaign of President Bush.

A federal grand jury in Toledo earlier this month took testimony in the fund-raising case from several prominent Republicans, including a former top aide to the governor who has admitted taking a $39,000 no-interest loan from Mr. Noe.

On June 7, the Bureau of Workers' Compensation admitted that a high-risk hedge fund based in Bermuda had lost $215 million of a bureau investment in just a few months last year.

Mr. Taft said he didn't know the extent of the loss until early this month, as Democrats accused him and other state officials of a cover-up. The governor demoted an aide, who had received a detailed e-mail about the investment loss before last year's presidential election, to work in the taxation department.

Then on Tuesday evening, after questions from The Blade, Mr. Taft released a written statement admitting that he had failed to include golf outings on his annual financial disclosure statements. Not only does state law require public officials to disclose gifts of more than $75, it is a first-degree misdemeanor to knowingly falsify an ethics form, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. And since 2001, it has been a violation of state law for a public official, without paying his or her own way, to attend a golf outing hosted by someone who does business with his or her agency.

The Blade has reported that Mr. Noe has played golf with the governor a "couple of times," at least once at Toledo's Inverness Club in 2002 - but no details have been released about who paid for the outings.

Mr. Taft has refused to publicly disclose any information about his golf outings - fueling rumors about who the governor has golfed with, how many times, and how long he has let others pick up his golf tab.

The Ohio Ethics Commission has announced it is investigating the governor. Mr. Taft, who is relying on a state law that shrouds such investigations, is accused of stonewalling by Democrats.

Republicans say Mr. Taft - who served in the Peace Corps from 1963 to 1965 in Tanzania and was first elected to office in 1976 to the Ohio House of Representatives - shouldn't be forgotten.

"When you think of Taft, you think No. 1, people who are truly public servants in Ohio," said Sandy Barber, the Fulton County recorder and chairman of the county's Republican Party. "They have given their time to make this a better state and provided the character and values that have gone along with that."

A powerful last name

Since early childhood, Bob Taft has witnessed the power of his last name.

His grandfather, Robert A. Taft, told a reporter: "The fact that father was president and chief justice of the United States was a tremendous help and inspiration in my public career," according to the book, America's Political Dynasties, by Stephen Hess. The family name, Senator Taft said, "supplies the impetus which gives a man his start, but that impetus does not last forever. After the start is made, it is only by his own effort that a man can keep going, and one with a family name has a lot to live up to."

Former Gov. James Rhodes picked the then-44-year-old Bob Taft as his running mate for the 1986 governor's race. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Dick Celeste won re-election. Former Gov. James Rhodes picked the then-44-year-old Bob Taft as his running mate for the 1986 governor's race. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Dick Celeste won re-election.
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And generations before him, Governor Taft's predecessors knew that politics was a complex and tricky game.

Governor Taft's great-grandfather, William Howard Taft, was warned by his own father, Alphonso Taft, when he entered politics in the early 1880s.

"Politics is a dirty business, don't get in too far" was the warning, said Mr. Burton, the leading Taft historian.

For four generations, members of the Taft family were generally able to stay above the political fray and not become embroiled in scandal.

By the time Bob Taft entered public life in the second half of the 20th century, his predecessors had established a family name that was among the most well-known and respected in the land.

His great-great-grandfather, Alphonso Taft, served as secretary of war and attorney general under President Ulysses S. Grant.

His great-grandfather, William Howard Taft, was elected president in 1908 and in 1921 was named chief justice of the Supreme Court - and he remains the only individual in U.S. history to serve in both roles.

His grandfather, Robert A. Taft, known as "Mr. Republican," held a seat in the U.S. Senate for 14 years and served as the Republican leader in the Senate. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president in 1940, 1948, and 1952.

The governor's father, Robert Taft, Jr., served in the U.S. House and Senate in the 1960s and 1970s.

"These men were not perfect, but they were men of profound judgment and of great care of what they did and what they said," said Mr. Burton, a professor emeritus at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "They were very straightforward, upright, even to a point uptight in their sense of honesty and in a sense of public responsibility."

Mr. Burton said he spent much of his own academic career "rehabilitating" the reputation of President Taft, who is often overlooked in history books because he falls between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson - "two mountains of pride."

"He was a better president than most people are willing to admit," Mr. Burton said, pointing to his success in breaking up some of the biggest business monopolies of the time. "He really didn't like being president all that much because he didn't think he was popular."

Unlike some of the nation's other leading political families - the Kennedys and the Roosevelts - the Tafts typically kept to themselves.

"The Roosevelts were showmen," Mr. Burton said. "The Kennedy's were super-showmen, but the Tafts were inward people. They turned into their family, rather than out to political friends and political operators and entrepreneurs. They were self-contained."

A tradition of service

In 1995, C-SPAN did a segment on William Howard Taft for an eight-part series on presidents from Ohio.

Standing in the parlor of the birthplace of his great-grandfather, Mr. Taft discussed his grandfather, Robert A. Taft, and his father.

"I think it must be in the genes, in the blood,'' said Mr. Taft, who at the time was secretary of state, Ohio's chief election official. "I think the love of the law, particularly the desire to do public duty, has driven the family."

Mr. Taft said his family's dedication to public service started with his great-great-grandfather, Alphonso Taft.

Mr. Burton said Mr. Taft's ancestors managed to steer clear of scandal.

During President Taft's term, however, a congressional committee unearthed a minor scandal, which had taken place years earlier, in an effort to embarrass him, according to Mr. Hess' book, America's Political Dynasties.

But little could shake the Taft reputation for integrity.

"The breath of scandal never went on the mirror of [William Howard] Taft's presidency, much less his Supreme Court time," Mr. Burton said.

And it was not for a lack of temptation, Mr. Burton said.

Earlier in his career, William Howard Taft worked as a federal revenue tax collector in Ohio.

"After less than a year, he said to his father, 'I have to get out. This is a dangerous place to be. There's too much money passing back and forth,' " Mr. Burton said.

But there also were accusations of rough-and-tumble politics involving the Tafts.

Mr. Taft's great-grandfather and grandfather both were accused of trying to "steal" presidential nominations, according to America's Political Dynasties. William Howard Taft and Robert A. Taft were accused at the 1912 and 1952 Republican conventions, respectively, of trying to wrongfully win delegates.

Both times, opponents shouted, "Thou Shalt Not Steal!" - which was uttered first by President Theodore Roosevelt at the 1912 convention.

Then during his successful 1970 Senate campaign, Mr. Taft's father, Robert Taft, Jr., received $15,000 from a $1.5 million slush fund controlled by Richard Nixon's personal attorney, Herbert W. Kalmbach.

The Watergate scandal flushed out the secret fund in 1973, when a former Taft aide said the money was routed through 10 bogus Taft finance committees.

At the time, Senator Taft told reporters that "there was nothing illegal," but he pledged a thorough investigation.

Fallout from the Watergate scandal played a major role in Senator Taft's loss to Democrat Howard Metzenbaum in the 1976 election.

For many Ohioans today, these stories aren't part of the Taft script of honesty and integrity.

Sen. Robert Taft, Jr., signs an autograph while his second wife, Kay, looks on in 1973. The governor's father was defeated in his 1976 Senate race by Democrat Howard Metzenbaum. Sen. Robert Taft, Jr., signs an autograph while his second wife, Kay, looks on in 1973. The governor's father was defeated in his 1976 Senate race by Democrat Howard Metzenbaum.
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"There's always a lore that grows up around politicians who are deceased," Mr. Butland said. "When you're dead, you become a statesman."

Statewide ambitions

In December, 1985, former Republican Gov. James Rhodes chose Bob Taft as his running mate in his unsuccessful 1986 gubernatorial campaign.

Mr. Taft made it clear where he eventually wanted to go.

"My goal is to be governor in the long term. I'm 44, so I have a little bit of time. This is my first state race, and it's a building process where you have to work your way up, and that's what I'm doing," Mr. Taft said at the time.

In 1989, Mr. Taft jumped into the governor's race. He made his formal announcement at a Cincinnati hotel, flanked by large pictures of his relatives.

But shortly before the 1990 primary, Mr. Taft dropped out in favor of Republican George Voinovich, who had served 10 years as mayor of Cleveland.

Instead, Mr. Taft decided to run for secretary of state after Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, committed to the party bankrolling his campaign.

In fact, Mr. Bennett showed Mr. Taft a $300,000 check when they met in Cincinnati to illustrate the GOP's commitment if Mr. Taft would run for one of the seats that would draw legislative boundaries after the 1990 election, the Dayton Daily News reported.

Mr. Bennett called the check a "prop," but Democrats referred to it as a "bribe."

Mr. Taft received $300,000 in campaign contributions from the Republican National Committee and the Ohio Republican Party and defeated incumbent Sherrod Brown, a Democrat now serving in Congress.

The deal, which Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater helped cut, included a pledge that Mr. Taft would be next in line to run for governor on the Republican ticket.

After two terms, Governor Voinovich could not run again for the state's top office in 1998 because of term limits, giving Mr. Taft his opportunity.

About three weeks before Election Day, Mr. Taft became the first Ohio candidate for governor to be reprimanded for airing a misleading TV ad.

The state Elections Commission ruled that the Taft attack ad falsely represented Democrat Lee Fisher's record as attorney general.

"He will go down in Ohio's Hall of Shame for being convicted of lying to the people of Ohio,'' Alan Melamed, Mr. Fisher's campaign manager, said at the time of Mr. Taft.

But Mr. Taft won the election by 5 percentage points.

Signs of trouble

Less than a year after taking office, Mr. Taft signed a fund-raising letter for the Ohio Republican Party that invited donors to join "Team Ohio." For $25,000 or more, contributors could party at the governor's residence, sit in his box at an Ohio State University football game, or get other perks.

When it was revealed that the money raised flowed into a secret fund that could accept unlimited contributions, Mr. Taft said he wouldn't take part anymore, saying "Team Ohio" was "inconsistent with the ethical standards and tone we have sought to set in the governor's office."

That same year, Mr. Taft raised money for a group that collected secret donations to unseat state Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick, a Democrat who lives in Ottawa Hills.

When an attack ad against Justice Resnick accused her of making decisions based on campaign contributions from trial lawyers and unions, Mr. Taft called the spots "inappropriate for an ad about the court."

But Mr. Taft said he didn't regret making fund-raising calls that helped pay for it.

Justice Resnick won the election, but a Massachusetts-based group fought for five years in the courts to force the Ohio Chamber of Commerce to disclose the donors to Citizens for a Strong Ohio.

Cliff Arnebeck, an attorney for the Alliance for a Democracy, which won its battle in January, said Mr. Taft failed to halt the stealth fund-raising.

"It was illegal and corrupt and why didn't Taft and anyone else go after this? Why were the public-interest groups and the press the only ones who were raising the issue?" Mr. Arnebeck said.

Now, the same questions are being asked about Mr. Taft's ethics.

On May 27, as he announced the departure of James Conrad, the head of the workers' compensation bureau, Mr. Taft reflected on a series of resignations in his administration.

"All I can say is we insist on very high ethical standards in my administration. When someone doesn't live up to those standards, there are consequences. That's my job as governor," Mr. Taft said.

He added, "The record will show that, when wrongdoing or unethical behavior came to light, we took action as we are taking today."

When a Blade reporter asked if the Taft family name had been tarnished amid the scandal, Mr. Taft responded by vowing to "clean up" what had taken place and to make reforms.

"We are going to leave the state a better, more accountable place than when I found it," he said. "We're going to have better laws. We're going to have better oversight. We're going to have restrictions on investments. We're going to have more disclosure that I hope will be an important legacy for the people of the state of Ohio."

On May 11, Mr. Taft addressed an ethics symposium at Xavier University in Cincinnati, saying, "Public servants must pay if they want to play."

"Public employees can enjoy entertainment, such as golf or dining out with persons working for a regulated company or one doing business with that state only if they fully pay their own way," he said.

A day later, on May 12, he gave another talk on ethics at the Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

"We simply will not tolerate unethical behavior in this administration," he said. "Unfortunately, not everyone has received that message. A number of your former colleagues are no longer with us or no longer working for the state either because they didn't understand the laws, they didn't take the laws seriously, or they may have just looked the other way."

Now, Mr. Taft has hired a criminal defense attorney as the Ethics Commission investigates whether he violated state laws by accepting golf outings and not disclosing them as gifts.

Mr. Bennett, the state GOP chairman, said the governor has taken the appropriate action by disclosing his errors to the public and the Ethics Commission.

"I think when it is all said and done, we are going to find out this was a mistake that he made," he said. "I think the governor will be fine on it."

Mark Rickel, Mr. Taft's press secretary, said the governor's initiative to overhaul the state's tax code is "historic," the state has spent millions to renovate and construct new public schools, and Mr. Taft has guided the state budget through recession.

But Henry Eckhart, a Democratic attorney who was treasurer of Democratic John Gilligan's 1970 campaign for governor, said Mr. Taft's legacy will be "ineptitude and scandal - they go together."

One of the major ironies is that the figures linked to the Bureau of Workers' Compensation scandal were appointed by then-Governor Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, Mr. Eckhart said.

Mr. Taft didn't sweep all Voinovich appointees out of state government when he took office in 1999, and Mr. Eckhart suspects the reason is business interests wanted the "pro-employer" Mr. Conrad in charge of the Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

"The overall perspective is Taft sat there for eight years as governor and did nothing and let the state go downhill. Here is a guy who could afford any golf course in the state and he takes gifts from guys like Noe, who contributed to his campaigns," Mr. Eckhart said.

"That is a result of our whole political system that runs on money. It's one of the tragedies of this thing - the son, the grandson, the great-grandson of this dynasty who may put a blot on his ancestors."

Contact Steve Eder at: seder@theblade.com or 419-724-6728.



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