Attorney General: Wright State’s $1M consultant not a lobbyist

Lawmaker says Wine’s arrangment with WSU ‘does not pass the smell test’

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The state’s probe of Wright State University followed I-Team investigations that found millions of dollars being paid to a consultant to secure state and federal funds, including nearly $1 million paid in one year without a written contract. We will continue to follow this story as state lawmakers call for reform.

A pair of state probes into Wright State University and consultant Ron Wine found no evidence that Wine or the university broke any lobbying laws or engaged in pay-to-play politics, state officials said Friday.

A review of Wine’s and WSU’s records found the amount of time Wine spent lobbying state lawmakers fell far short of the threshold that would have required him to register as a lobbyist, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

“The results of the Attorney General’s probe validate what we have said from the beginning: Ron Wine and his consulting firm were not engaged to do lobbying but to help Wright State University grow jobs and the economy of our region as requested by the Governor and the State Legislature,” said WSU President David Hopkins in response to the findings.

The Ohio AG’s office said Friday that its investigation had to rely on public records and voluntary compliance by Wine, since the law does not give the attorney general’s office subpoena power in enforcing lobbying laws.

Mike Duffey, chairman of the Ohio House Finance Subcommittee on Higher Education, called the investigation’s limits, and the size and lack of oversight of Wine’s contract, “a failing of the system that calls out for reform.”

“I don’t want somebody to be charged if they did follow the law, but the whole thing does not pass the smell test for what the people of Ohio expect,” Duffey said. “It should not happen again, and reforms should be pursued that will remedy it so it doesn’t happen again.”

Ohio AG Mike DeWine began investigating whether Wine was operating as an unregistered lobbyist after this newspaper reported that the university paid Ron Wine Consulting Group nearly $2 million since 2009 — including almost $1 million in 2014 without a written contract — to secure state and federal funds for WSU. That work involved meeting with state lawmakers.

OLIG: No evidence of pay-to-play

Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger requested a separate review of Wine’s work after this newspaper asked about emails from Wine to WSU’s Hopkins advising the university’s president to ask for state funds and offer to host a political fundraiser during a meeting with Rosenberger.

Ohio Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe said Friday that his office reviewed campaign contributions from people related to Wright State and found no evidence that anyone donated money for favor, which would violate state law.

“The emails would seem to suggest what many of us would consider an inappropriate form of advocacy,” Bledsoe said. “No steps were taken in furtherance of what he appears to suggest in those emails.”

Wine did not return a message seeking comment Friday. But in testimony to the Ohio AG’s office, he said he was a “strategic advisor” helping the university expand its research efforts.

“According to Wine, as a consultant he was hired to set priorities and be a strategic advisor to WSU,” the AG’s office report said. “Wine said he was not hired to be a ‘doer’ and there were lobbyists available to WSU to perform those functions. Wine explained he was hired to be a coach and provide advice.”

State law requires someone to register as a lobbyist if they spend more than 5 percent of their time lobbying the General Assembly, or 25 percent of their time lobbying the executive branch. Registered lobbyists face restrictions on how much and how they can be paid.

Lawmaker: Contracts need oversight

“After interviews with Wine and Wright State University officials, as well as an examination of Wine’s calendar, phone records, and other documents, the investigation determined that the portion of Wine’s work which constituted advocacy of either kind was less than one percent,” said a release from the AG’s office.

Duffey, R-Worthington, said the General Assembly should give investigators subpoena power to thoroughly investigate cases like this, and should look into reining in consultant contracts that involve any amount of lobbying or seeking government funds.

“If somebody is being remunerated that amount of money and it has a direct nexus to advocacy, they should have to be registered as a lobbyist,” he said.

Wine’s current contract with Wright State — under which he could be paid up to $1 million a year through mid-2019 — was suspended during the probe. University officials didn’t say Friday whether it will be reinstated.

“Wright State is proud of the work it has produced on behalf of the region and Ohio,” Hopkins said, saying in a statement that WSU’s work has helped create hundreds of area jobs and lure more than $100 million in research funding to Ohio.

“We will continue to aggressively work to improve the lives of our students and the communities we serve.”

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