- Laura A. Bischoff Columbus bureau
The public is in the dark about how much Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger is paying to rent a 2,200-square-foot luxury condo from a well-heeled GOP donor. Ohio ethics law doesn’t require Rosenberger to offer public proof that he is paying a fair market rate.
If you’re curious about what gifts Ohio Gov. John Kasich received in 2015 from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Golf Channel or Fuyao Glass America Inc. — the Chinese auto glass maker that received a huge tax incentive package from the state — you’re out of luck. Kasich and the givers aren’t required to disclose the nature or value of the gifts.
And when state Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, said on his 2015 annual financial disclosure statement that he was owed more than $1,000 a piece from state Treasurer Josh Mandel and Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, the public could only guess about the total and the reason for the debt.
Ethics laws in Ohio, which date to the Watergate scandal, exist to hold those in government accountable. All told, Ohio’s law covers 590,000 people, including 10,300 key officials who must file annual financial disclosure statements.
Paul Nick, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, said Ohio has a track record for enforcement that is equaled by only a handful of other states. Ohio isn’t shy about who it goes after either: the list of public officials who have been caught violating ethics laws includes then Gov. Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest in August 2005 to four misdemeanor charges of filing incomplete financial disclosure statements in connection with his golf outings over a three-year period. Others say the laws themselves keep government clean and its officials honest.
But a Dayton Daily News investigation found plenty of loopholes in Ohio’s system for policing unethical activity.
• Lobbyists can wine and dine lawmakers attending certain national conferences — such as those put on by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, along with several others — without facing spending limits or disclosure requirements. Records from the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee show nearly $125,000 in food and bar tabs were picked up by lobbyists during these events over the past five years.
• Lawmakers aren’t required to say how much they owe creditors, list the value and nature of the gifts they receive, or why and where they traveled at someone else’s expense. The lack of details required is why Mandel and Obhof are under no obligation to reveal the size of their debt to Faber.
• Missing information on disclosure forms is often missed. It is only through a complaint, tip or news story that government watchdogs know to dig deeper. That happened in 2012 when the Dayton Daily News investigated Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee’s travel and entertainment expenses. The Ohio Ethics Commission allowed Gee to file addenda to his 2007-2011 annual financial disclosure statements after it was determined he inadvertently failed to report more than $150,000 in travel expenses.
• Sitting lawmakers can seek jobs with state universities and agencies — even those that receive millions of dollars through the state legislature. Springfield Republican Chris Widener pitched his consulting services to universities while serving in the Ohio Senate. The day after Widener stepped down, he signed a $72,000-a-year deal with Central State University.
• The watchdogs themselves have motivation to tread lightly. Their ability to effectively root out fraud, abuse, conflicts and lies is dependent on getting funding through the legislature, whose very members are sometimes investigated for violating ethics laws.
‘It was crazy’
It was the Watergate scandal that led Ohio to establish a legal template for ethical behavior. In 1973, the year before Richard Nixon resigned as president, Ohio passed a comprehensive ethics law for nearly every public official and employee — from the city garbage collector to the governor to those who do business with the government. The law prohibited releasing confidential information obtained on the job, using a public position to get benefits for yourself or your family or your business associates, soliciting or accepting material of value and holding an interest in public contracts in some circumstances.
What the law didn’t do was prevent legislators from taking hefty speaking and appearance fees or accepting expensive meals and trips from lobbyists and special interests.
Jeff Jacobson, who served as a Dayton area lawmaker from 1992 to 2008 and is now a registered lobbyist, recalled that as a freshman in the Ohio House he ran into a senior senator and his wife at a Columbus restaurant and was invited to join them. When it came time to leave, Jacobson asked the senator how much he owed. The senator, who Jacobson did not wish to name, pointed across the room and said ‘That guy over there paid our tab.’
“It was at the Capital Club. I remember it vividly. It was just stunning,” Jacobson recalled. “The guy never came over to our table one time.”
Tom Charles, who served as both the Legislative Inspector General and the Ohio Inspector General, said Jacobson’s experience was typical back then.
“It was crazy. It was a free for all,” Charles said. “There were restaurants where folks could go into on a Tuesday or Thursday and just put it on someone’s tab.”
Around Christmas, he said, trucks filled with fruitcakes, booze, turkeys and hams would back up to state government office towers, where the goodies were distributed to those with a hand in how government operates.
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Jacobson and others pushed new ethics rules for lawmakers in 1993 that mandated the disclosure of outside income and business interests, any gifts worth more than $75, debtors and creditors, family members and business interests; a ban on honoraria payments; establishment of the 12-member Joint Legislative Ethics Committee and appointment of a Legislative Inspector General, the job Charles would later hold.
A year later, lawmakers — pushed by the threat of a citizen initiative landing on the statewide ballot — adopted the first major overhaul of campaign finance laws in two decades. Also included in the changes was a $2,500 contribution limit for individuals and political action committees.
But just two years after the overhaul of campaign finance, lobbyist and lawmaker ethics laws, the appetite for reform seemed to wane. Jacobson’s effort to expand the powers of the Legislative Inspector General and require lobbyists to reveal how much clients are paying them failed.
“The public has an absolute right to know who’s paying to have legislation written in this state,” he said at the time. “We’re going to continue to fight for the public’s right for full and complete information.”
Big fish nailed
Despite weaknesses in Ohio’s law, the state’s watchdogs have nailed some big fish — aided in many cases by news organizations uncovering wrongdoing by public officials.
Stories published by the Dayton Daily News and other Statehouse press in 2003 found public pension fund trustees spending freely on travel, meals and bar tabs. A subsequent Ohio Ethics Commission uncovered vendors improperly supplied free food, drinks, golf, and travel to pension trustees. The reports led to new limits on travel, changes in how pension funds are governed and several criminal convictions for ethics violations.
One of the biggest ethics and investment scandals in modern Ohio history broke loose in 2005 when the Toledo Blade first reported more than $10 million was missing from an Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation investment fund managed by Republican donor Tom Noe. The news stories and subsequent investigations and criminal charges led to 19 convictions and a re-vamping of how the BWC safeguards its investment portfolio.
Noe was sentenced to 18 years in prison and is currently housed in the Marion Correctional Institution.
Democrat Marc Dann crusaded against corruption at the BWC and won a tight race for Ohio Attorney General in 2006. But Dann ran into his own ethics and mismanagement buzz-saw. Two years into his four-year term he was pressured into resigning. Dann, his now ex-wife and three top aides were later convicted of ethics violations.
Shortly after the Dann scandal, Ohio deputy treasurer Amer Ahmad and three co-conspirators were operating a kickback scheme that netted them more than $500,000. The FBI public corruption task force in Columbus began investigating the treasurer’s office after the Dayton Daily News published stories in May 2010 calling into question Ahmad’s relationship with a bank lobbyist. Ahmad is now serving a 15-year prison sentence for money laundering, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery.
Lawmakers have not escaped scandal, investigations and convictions either.
State Rep. W. Carlton Weddington, a Columbus Democrat, pleaded guilty to bribery and election falsification in June 2012 and was sentenced to three years in prison. Weddington got nabbed in an FBI sting that eventually led the feds to state Rep. Clayton Luckie, a Dayton Democrat.
FBI agents found a discrepancy in campaign finance reports that led to the discovery that Luckie diverted $130,000 from his campaign account for personal use, including cash withdrawals, purchases at retail businesses, and a payment on a home equity line of credit. Luckie, who spent 10 years on the Dayton School Board and six years in the Ohio House, served three years in prison before his release last year.
‘Transparency is critical’
Merom Brachman, who except for a brief hiatus has served on the Ohio Ethics Commission since 1975 and is now its chairman, said Ohio’s ethics law provides a necessary check on those in power.
“There is no question that the law has steadily been strengthened, maybe not always to the degree of enforcement that some would like,” he said. “But in fairness, the legislature in a bipartisan way has added to the commission’s authority and has generally provided funds that an administration has provided.”
Brachman said the Dann case shows how the system works: he stepped down, a competent interim attorney general took over, and a special election was held for a replacement.
Former Ohio Senate president Tom Niehaus, a New Richmond Republican who is now a registered lobbyist, said Ohio doesn’t have a big corruption problem.
“You look at all the legislators who have gone through the General Assembly since the ethics laws passed,” he said. “There have only been a handful who have run afoul with the laws.”
Added former state Rep. Mike Curtin, D-Columbus: “There have always been people willing to take what’s offered them and there always will be. You’re never going to have a foolproof system to catch all the things we ought to catch.”
But Charles said the system could be improved through better funding for the Ohio Ethics Commission and broader authority for the state Inspector General over state offices and public pension systems.
He cited another necessary ingredient: aggressive news coverage that shines a light on unethical behavior.
“Transparency and having news reporters holding people’s feet to the fire is critical,” Charles said. “In many cases, if I didn’t have you all writing some stories, they would have gotten rid of me in a heartbeat.
“Transparency is critical.”