Deadline lifted for sale of state's coins

William Mabe says he wants to avoid a coin fund 'fire sale.'
William Mabe says he wants to avoid a coin fund 'fire sale.'

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Senate yesterday unanimously lifted its deadline for the sale of rare coins and other collectibles purchased with state funds from the Bureau of Workers' Compensation, saying it wants to avoid a "fire sale" to coin dealers salivating for bargains.

The chamber also voted 31-1 to confirm the bureau's new administrator, William Mabe, after a Senate committee held a rare confirmation hearing on the man Gov. Bob Taft has appointed to fix an agency plagued by scandal and pay-to-play allegations.

Lawmakers had set a deadline of April 1 for the sale of the coins and other items purchased by two investment funds operated by Tom Noe, the former Maumee coin dealer and influential Republican fund-raiser. But Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates, William Bodoh, a retired federal bankruptcy judge placed in charge of the liquidation process, and the Workers' Compensation Oversight Commission asked for more time.

"The U.S. coin market has been assuming that the bureau will have to conduct a 'fire sale' and is waiting for us to do just that," wrote Commission Chairman William Sopko in a letter to legislative leaders. "It will take some time and some gradual coin sales to prove to the market we will not be conducting a fire sale."

Investigators also contend they may need to hold onto some of the items as evidence. Mr. Noe was recently indicted on federal charges of illegally laundering campaign contributions to President Bush, and separate investigations into Mr. Noe and the coin funds continue. Mr. Noe's attorney has conceded that $13 million of the original $50 million investment is unaccounted for.

"I did not know that [Mr. Mabe] didn't know the governor until he was actually interviewed for the job," said Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) after the confirmation vote. "So often it's thought that it's somebody who's been a life-long friend, and that's not the case. Especially with as sensitive appointment as this is, I think that's significant."

During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Mabe, a retired Nationwide Insurance executive, said he is delaying a decision whether to give refunds to businesses while he makes sure figures are accurate at the agency in the middle of an investment scandal.

"We want to be absolutely accurate on the financials," he said. "Right now it's like there's a lot of loose ends hanging out there."

Before Mr. Mabe's decision, the Workers' Compensation Oversight Commission was scheduled to discuss tomorrow whether to refund businesses some of the money they paid in premiums. Mr. Mabe said he still hopes to make a recommendation by year's end.

The commission in June rejected an agency proposal for a $70 million refund because of concerns about the bureau's investments. At that time, details were emerging about losses of $300 million, including the coin fund losses and $215 million in a high-risk hedge fund.

Mr. Mabe replaced longtime administrator James Conrad, who was forced out in May by Governor Taft.