22 Ohio public officials dinged in 2020 for violating Ohio ethics law

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A former state senate president, a Miami County commissioner, and a Preble County fire chief were among 22 public officials who entered into settlement agreements with the Ohio Ethics Commission last year after running afoul of state ethics laws.

The ethics commission enters into settlement agreements with public officials across Ohio — usually as reprimands in lieu of prosecution — for violating state ethics laws. The agency doesn’t post them online. The Dayton Daily News, using Ohio public records law, obtains the agreements every year.

ExploreFrom 2020: Here are 20 Ohio public officials reprimanded for ethics violations in 2019
ExploreFrom 2019 - 5 local leaders violated ethics laws
ExploreFrom 2018 - More public officials dinged for ethics violations
ExploreFrom 2017 - 14 public officials reprimanded by the Ohio Ethics Commission

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Search last year’s settlement agreements at the bottom of this story.

Three of the settlements last year dealt with area or statewide officials.

Former Senate president

In this undated photo provided by Ohio Senate, Sen. Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond, is shown. (AP Photo/Ohio Senate)
In this undated photo provided by Ohio Senate, Sen. Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond, is shown. (AP Photo/Ohio Senate)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Thomas Niehaus was a state senator from Clermont County from 2005 to 2012 and served as president of the Senate in 2011 and 2012. He then became a consultant and lobbyist for Columbus-based Vorys Advisors LLC.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich appointed Niehaus in 2013 to the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority, which aims to improve air quality in Ohio by investing in air quality projects, facilities and research.

In August 2019, Niehaus requested an advisory opinion from the ethics commission asking if he could serve on the AQDA board while lobbying for energy companies and groups. The ethics commission responded that first he needed to fill out ethics disclosure forms.

Niehaus then requested a meeting with the ethics commission executive director, where he self-reported that he appeared before numerous state agencies on behalf of clients over the years without filing the required disclosure forms.

“Niehaus resigned from the AQDA effective Oct. 4, 2019, rather than recuse himself from what likely would have been numerous board discussions and likely votes where a conflict might exist,” the settlement agreement says.

The ethics commission in May 2020 found Niehaus violated state law by lobbying for multiple clients before several state boards, commissions and agencies since March 2013 without making proper disclosures.

The commission found Niehaus did the proper reporting required by lobbyists to the Joint Legislative Ethics Commission, and self-reported the issue to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

“The investigation found no evidence that he acted in his official capacity concerning any client, and, in fact, when it occurred on one occasion, he actively recused himself by leaving the meeting and not just abstaining from participating,” the settlement says.

Niehaus admitted that he violated ethics law and accepted a reprimand from the commission in lieu of prosecution.

Contacted by the Dayton Daily News, Niehaus said: “I discovered a reporting oversight in the summer of 2019, I reported it immediately, corrected it, end of story.”

Miami County commissioner

John "Bud" O'Brien
John "Bud" O'Brien

Miami County Commissioner John “Bud” O’Brien entered into an ethics commission settlement agreement last year for violating ethics law when he applied for a job with the Miami County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

The settlement agreement, finalized in January 2020, says O’Brien’s county commission term expired in December 2018. In June 2018, he contacted the development disabilities superintendent about interest in an open position and applied for the job a month later, it says.

During this time, he continued voting on matters concerning the developmental disabilities board, it says.

The county prosecutor in July 2018 issued an opinion saying O’Brien’s actions were a conflict of interest and referred the matter to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

“I want to assure the citizens of Miami County that O’Brien’s behavior is atypical of our elected officials,” County Prosecutor Anthony Kendell said in a release in January 2020. “I have a zero tolerance policy on any acts remotely resembling unethical or criminal behavior, especially by any public official.”

O’Brien acknowledged violating state ethics law and accepted a reprimand from the Ethics Commission.

O’Brien’s attorney Mark Weaver said the issues O’Brien voted on were routine, unanimous votes. Weaver said the job O’Brien applied for would have started after his retirement from the commission, and he withdrew his application after legal counsel said it was a conflict and cooperated with the investigation.

“Mr. O’Brien’s actions were inadvertent, he never received anything of value, and he now has a much better understanding of the complicated legal issues brought to light by the professional and proper review of the commission and its staff,” Weaver said.

West Alexandria fire chief

West Alexandria Fire Dept.
West Alexandria Fire Dept.

Credit: Staff file photo by George W. He

Credit: Staff file photo by George W. He

Former West Alexandria fire chief Jeff Shafer entered into a settlement agreement with the Preble County prosecutor in March 2020 after an investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission.

The investigation found Jeff Shafer promoted his son Brad Shafer to fire lieutenant in 2011, and later directed him to be promoted to EMS lieutenant.

He also recommended village council hire his son Zach Shafer as a general laborer — which they did — and later recommended they create a new EMS coordinator position for him, the settlement says. After council didn’t create the position, he sent Zach Shafer to Sinclair Community College to take a fire inspector course with village funds.

In July 2016 Jeff Shafer directed the assistant fire chief to promote Zach Shafer because counsel had told him that it would be nepotism if he promoted his son himself, the settlement says.

It says Zach Shafer was later fired “for insubordination and disobeying a direct order,” and Jeff Shafer recommended rehiring him in 2017.

Per the terms of the settlement agreement, Jeff Shafer acknowledged that he violated Ohio ethics law, though he disputes some of the allegations. He was ordered to attend ethics training and pay the village $1,707 in restitution.

Jeff Shafer’s attorney Steven Hobbs said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News that village council made the final decisions on hiring and promotions. The settlement agreement acknowledges the village solicitor raised no objections to Jeff Shafer’s actions.

Hobbs said the ethics complaint was “political backlash.” Zach Shafer ran for village council in 2017 and was elected in 2019.

Hobbs said the sons were qualified for the positions they were given, and in small towns like West Alexandria it’s not uncommon for multiple family members to lead and work for the same department.

“In small communities, people in the volunteer fire department aren’t doing it for money, they’re doing it because it’s a family tradition, or heritage, it’s service to the community,” he said.

Village Council fired Jeff Shafer last year after the ethics settlement.

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