Michael Cicak, left, of Willard & Kelsey and manager Vince Poleo guide Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, one of several key Democrats to visit the firm, in 2011.
As Willard & Kelsey Solar Group’s executives eyed millions in state development dollars in mid-2008, the company’s chief financial officer cozied up to someone with high-level access to former Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration to aid the firm’s funding request.
At the suggestion of Mossie Murphy, Willard & Kelsey’s chief financial officer, the Perrysburg solar-panel manufacturer’s brass reached out to Cleveland businessman C. David Snyder, a top donor to Mr. Strickland’s 2006 campaign and fund-raiser for his re-election bid.
“Dave is very close with the governor and just a really good guy,” a May, 2008, email from Mr. Murphy to Willard & Kelsey’s then-chief executive officer states.
That email spurred a lucrative relationship between Mr. Snyder and Willard & Kelsey — one that helped the now-shuttered solar firm secure $10.6 million in taxpayer-funded grants and loans, a Blade investigation shows.
The relationship also was fruitful for Mr. Snyder.
His Cleveland information technology company, Attevo Inc., landed a more than $230,000 contract with Willard & Kelsey a month after he set a meeting for Willard & Kelsey’s executives and Mr. Strickland’s top advisers. The Blade obtained a copy of the contract, which had projected monthly payments as high as $110,750 for “consulting and travel fees.”
“Dave, at the time, was helping the chief financial officer and the chief executive officer of Willard & Kelsey get access to the governor’s office to file their financing request,” said Gary Dowdy, an ex-partner at Attevo who worked with Willard & Kelsey. “The quid pro quo was they hired us to come in and do IT consulting.”
In an interview with The Blade, Mr. Strickland denied knowing that Mr. Snyder and Willard & Kelsey were affiliated. The former Democratic governor said his administration did not grant special favors to Willard & Kelsey, which is being sued by the Ohio attorney general for fraudulently spending its state funding.
Mr. Snyder and his wife donated $21,000 to Mr. Strickland’s 2006 campaign and threw a small, white-glove fund-raiser at their Lakewood, Ohio, mansion during his re-election bid.
“I do remember going to his home for the fund-raiser because it’s a really nice home,” Mr. Strickland said. “I remember being there, but I don’t remember much about it, and I absolutely have no knowledge of how much money may have been raised at that fund-raiser.”
The former governor denied granting free rein of his administration to Mr. Snyder, who is being sued by the U.S. Department of Labor for misappropriating his employees’ retirement contributions. Mr. Snyder also faces charges that Attevo misused a $1.1 million state loan, which the Ohio attorney general is attempting to collect.
Mr. Strickland said he didn’t receive anything improper from Mr. Snyder or grant anything special to him.
“I don’t know that I had lunch or a meal with him, I guess it’s possible, but I certainly have no recollection,” Mr. Strickland said. “I have a lot of people I consider friends and a whole bunch of others I consider acquaintances, but Dave Snyder is certainly not one of those people.”
A Blade review of hundreds of state emails, calendar entries from the governor’s office, and interviews with Mr. Snyder’s former employees, however, indicates strong ties between Mr. Snyder and the Strickland administration.
Although the state was responsible for vetting and monitoring Willard & Kelsey and Attevo, which received a combined $12 million in taxpayer-funded loans and grants, state officials never documented any significant problems at the firms or with their executives, show a review of public records, some of which were heavily redacted.
In the case of Attevo, the state did not include litigation and claims made against the company or Mr. Snyder in the firm’s state loan contract, which differs from other development contracts reviewed by The Blade. Financially damning information about Attevo and Mr. Snyder that readily was available in public court records also was not included in state development records.
Ohio development officials working under Republican Gov. John Kasich placed the state loans to Willard & Kelsey and Attevo in default last year after The Blade reported questionable financial practices at each firm.
The breakdown in the oversight and management of the companies’ state funding is well-documented and spans the Strickland and Kasich administrations.
The state’s latest glitch: When the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation came into possession in September, 2013, of a computer or computers and/or electronic devices that belonged to Willard & Kelsey’s former CEO — who said the company paid its executives with state development dollars — the state did not launch an investigation. The property wasn’t probed until a Jan. 28 civil court order mandated it be searched.
The Blade asked Governor Kasich’s office to comment about why the state waited five months to begin an inquiry into the computers and received no response. Mr. Kasich’s office repeatedly has refused to comment on flaws in Ohio’s economic development programs.
The link between Mr. Snyder and Willard & Kelsey was established through an examination of emails belonging to members of the Strickland administration. The documents were received by The Blade last month as part of an ongoing investigation by the newspaper into how the state awards taxpayer-funded loans and grants to Ohio firms.
The records show Mr. Snyder had a strong interest in arranging a meeting between Governor Strickland and Willard & Kelsey.
“I would be happy to coordinate the Willard Kelsey meeting with you and Governor Strickland. The CEO and CFO are both available February 20th. Does that work?” a February, 2009, email from Mr. Snyder to John Haseley, the governor’s chief of staff, reads.
An email sent later that month from an attorney representing Willard & Kelsey to Mr. Haseley mentions Mr. Snyder: “I heard from Dave Snyder he is trying to get March 10th as a date for a meeting with Gov. Strickland and Willard & Kelsey.”
“Obviously, I wasn’t aware of all those emails. I don’t know the volume,” Mr. Strickland told The Blade. “People in the administration working on development issues probably had some significant contact, but I think John [Haseley] told you our impression of Dave Snyder was not totally positive.”
Mr. Snyder did not return a phone call seeking comment for this article and has not responded to previous interview requests.
Mr. Murphy, who eventually became Willard & Kelsey’s vice president of development, did not return emails seeking comment.
Willard & Kelsey’s Toledo attorney, Rick Kerger, said Willard & Kelsey had a contract with Mr. Snyder’s company, but Mr. Snyder did not lobby for it in Columbus.
Part of Mr. Snyder’s mystique was his access to the Strickland administration, said Mr. Dowdy, who said he was fired from Attevo after inquiring about illegal financial transactions occurring at the company.
“That’s his persona,” Mr. Dowdy said. “Anybody that wanted to wheel and deal, he’d use his contacts.”
Those contacts extended to Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, Office of Budget and Management Director Pari Sabety, and Mr. Haseley.
Mr. Strickland said he was not friends with Mr. Snyder and found him to be arrogant.
“If someone were to ask me about the 1,000 to 2,000 people that I have a relationship with in my life, Dave Snyder would not be one of them,” the former governor said.
Other government emails obtained by The Blade contain more personal information about Mr. Snyder, such as this September, 2007, note from the state budget director to Mr. Haseley: “Dave Snyder’s father passed away yesterday. I’m sending a note, but Ted should also know.”
“It was not usual at all. If someone we worked with had a death in the family, we’d reach out,” said Mr. Haseley, who characterized his relationship with Mr. Snyder as professional and friendly.
The information about how Mr. Snyder used his relationship with the Strickland administration to benefit himself comes just weeks after Mr. Strickland was dispatched by the Democratic National Committed to Chicago to opine on the ethics of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“Strickland should have called it quits years ago because every time he wades back into politics it’s just another reminder of why he lost his job in the first place,” Ryan Mahoney, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement to The Blade.
Mr. Strickland said he was not aware of financial or managerial problems at Attevo or Willard & Kelsey and state development officials should have caught any red flags.
Although Mr. Strickland said he was clueless about the issues at Attevo and Willard & Kelsey, he made official visits to the firms during his tenure as governor. Willard & Kelsey also was toured by high-profile Democrats such as Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
In addition to stumping at the businesses during his heated battle for re-election, Mr. Strickland also received hefty campaign donations from their employees.
Willard & Kelsey’s executives and Dolores Cicak, one of their spouses; William Mulrooney, a company manager, and Leslee Snyder, an executive assistant, donated a total of $26,400 to Mr. Strickland’s 2010 re-election campaign. None of those individuals donated to Mr. Strickland’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign.
Internal emails from Willard & Kelsey show the firm had a congenial relationship with Mr. Snyder. The emails, which were obtained by The Blade, were maintained by former Willard & Kelsey CEO William Mitchell, who was fired from the company in 2009 and died in 2011.
Those emails show that Willard & Kelsey not only relied on Mr. Snyder’s political contacts — one asks for a cell phone number for Lieutenant Governor Fisher — but his financial ties as well. A July, 2008, note from Mr. Murphy to Mr. Snyder states: “Good to talk with you yesterday. As a backup plan I believe you said you have a relationship with Key Bank. ... If you have someone at Key that we could talk to and they were able to lend the funds needed we could work out a fee [arrangement] or possibly a deal on panels going forward at a discount for your green projects.”
Records from Willard & Kelsey that were reviewed by The Blade do not show that the firm had any business dealings with KeyBank.
The relationship between Willard & Kelsey and Mr. Snyder’s company, however, soured.
An April, 2010, lawsuit filed by Attevo against Willard & Kelsey in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas states Willard & Kelsey failed to pay Attevo $154,201 for services provided throughout 2009. The suit states Willard & Kelsey stopped paying Attevo after it shelled out $55,000 in July and August, 2009. It was dismissed in August, 2010, and a settlement was not included in the court records.
In addition to the communications involving Mr. Snyder, Mr. Mitchell stated in emails to his lawyer that Willard & Kelsey paid its executives with funds from a state loan. Those payments would be a direct violation of the firm’s state loan contract.
Although the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation obtained one or more of Mr. Mitchell’s computers and/or electronic devices in September, 2013, it did not initiate a criminal investigation upon receiving that property.
Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who has control over the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, said it would have been premature to ask for a criminal investigation without knowing what was contained on Mr. Mitchell’s property.
The attorney general’s office is in the process of reviewing the contents of Mr. Mitchell’s property — almost five months after receiving it — as part of two civil lawsuits Mr. DeWine filed against Willard & Kelsey in August, 2013, in Hamilton County Commercial Court. The court issued a subpoena Jan. 28 for the information contained on Mr. Mitchell’s devices.
If any criminal activity is discovered, it will be referred to the proper authorities, Mr. Tierney said.
The Ohio Development Services Agency and the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority were notified when the Bureau of Criminal Investigation took possession of Mr. Mitchell’s property, Mr. Tierney said. Both state entities issued Willard & Kelsey taxpayer-funded loans and are being represented by the attorney general in the civil suits.
Either agency could have requested an investigation of the property, Mr. Tierney said.
Lyn Tolan, deputy director of policy and communications for the Development Services Agency, said she didn’t know when the agency was informed the Bureau of Criminal Investigation had taken custody of Mr. Mitchell’s property. Ms. Tolan declined to comment further citing attorney-client privilege.
Jeff Jacobson, vice chairman of the state’s air authority, which loaned Willard & Kelsey $5.1 million, was shocked to discover the state possessed some of Mr. Mitchell’s electronic records and said he was never told the Bureau of Criminal Investigation had taken custody of them. He called the five-month lapse “confusing.”
He said the data contained on Mr. Mitchell’s property could be used “as a source of information to corroborate or contradict his allegations.”
Mr. Jacobson said when it comes to Willard & Kelsey, he’s always waiting for “some other shoe to drop.”
“I have to admit, almost everything I know about Willard & Kelsey I learned first in The Toledo Blade,” Mr. Jacobson said. “It has been disappointing and tragic that we learned about our own business from the paper and not from our consultants and staff.”
Kris Turner can be reached at: email@example.com or 419-724-6103.