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Former Ohio House speaker’s travels attract scrutiny

Cliff Rosenberger resigned after revealing he hired a defense attorney because of an FBI probe into his activities.

In a four-month span last year, then Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger visited British Parliament, stood on Omaha Beach in Normandy, checked out Iceland, met a renown presidential historian and toasted a good friend at a wedding in Italy.

But that’s not all.

Earlier in the year, the Republican flew in a helicopter along the U.S.-Mexico border, twice visited the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg, and hiked in the hills near Phoenix.

Rosenberger’s travel has come under increasing scrutiny by reporters after his abrupt resignation on April 12, which followed an acknowledgement he made to the Dayton Daily News that he hired a criminal defense attorney to deal with an FBI inquiry into his activities.

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The FBI declined to confirm or deny an investigation exists, but sources familiar with the probe said agents are looking into Rosenberger’s August 2017 trip to London, which included lobbyists from the payday lending industry and other sectors. 

Related: House Speaker hires defense attorney over FBI questionsRosenberger’s attorney, David Axelrod, said his resignation should not be interpreted as an admission of guilt; his travel was lawful and properly reported and did not interfere with legislative duties; and some of his trips were due to his leadership positions with the National Conference of State Legislatures and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, Axelrod said.

In his resignation statement, Rosenberger said “First and foremost, I believe that all of my actions as speaker have been both ethical and lawful.”

Busy travel schedule

In his three-plus years leading the 99-member Ohio House, Rosenberger traveled the state extensively, going to ribbon cuttings, factory tours, parades and political events for his fellow Republicans. But he also attended conferences and meetings across the country and availed himself of international trips.

Based on a review of his official calendar, financial disclosure statements and social media posts as well as confirmation by an Ohio House GOP spokesman, Rosenberger made the following trips:

  • 2015: Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Israel; Nashville, Tenn.; Normandy, France; and Washington, D.C.
  • 2016: Los Angeles, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai, China; Honolulu, Hawaii; New York; Chicago; Burlington, Vt.; Washington, D.C.
  • 2017: Scottsdale, Ariz.; Washington, D.C.; Jefferson City, Mo.; Boston; El Paso, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Gettysburg; Boston; N.C.; Los Angeles, Calif.; Iceland; London; Normandy, France; and Florence, Italy. The trip to Italy was personal travel to attend the wedding of Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos.

Related: Payday lending bill comes to life as House speaker faces probeOther trips made for political purposes, such as an annual fundraiser in Florida, were not listed on his official calendar.

Even before becoming speaker, Rosenberger accepted $1,067 worth of travel in 2014, $4,231 worth of travel in 2012 and $1,540 in 2011, according to his annual financial disclosure statements. He listed no travel for 2013. Those figures do not include state mileage reimbursements or travel expenses paid by the Ohio House Republican Organizational Committee.

House speaker is one of the three most powerful political posts in state government. The speaker has the ability to block or move legislation and has major influence over how Ohio spends more than $140 billion in its biennial budgets.

Ethics law loophole

Like other public officials, Rosenberger is required to file an annual financial disclosure statement by May 15 — a requirement Axelrod said his client will fulfill.

The statements list sources of income; names of immediate family members; real estate holdings; business names and fiduciary relationships; investments of more than $1,000; debtors and creditors; sources of gifts; who paid for travel; and who paid for food or drink worth more than $100.

A loophole in the state ethics laws allows lobbyists or their employers to pay the bill for travel to national conferences if the state or any political subdivision pays dues to the sponsoring organization, such as the National Conference of State Legislatures, American Legislative Exchange Council or the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.

Ohio House Speaker resigning amid FBI probeIt is common for organizations to offer “scholarships” to cover lawmakers’ travel expenses with funds received by corporate “sponsors,” who then may go on the trip. The trips offer an opportunity for lobbyists and corporate officials to rub elbows with legislative leaders as they attend wine tastings, tour historic landmarks, stay in fancy hotels and build relationships.

Ethics experts, though, say private interests shouldn’t be paying for trips made by public officials.

Ohio isn’t the only state that has legislators going on such trips.

Travel documents for Rosenberger’s international trips show that between six and 12 lawmakers were lined up for the NCSL Leadership Development trip to Normandy, France; the GOPAC Education Fund trip to London; and the State Legislative Leadership Foundation excursion to Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai, China.

Vos was listed as a participant on each of the three international trips, along with Advance America executive Carol Stewart. In social media posts, Rosenberger calls Vos one of his best friends.

He and Rosenberger both serve on NCSL and State Legislative Leaders Foundation boards. Rosenberger’s social media feed shows the two together at the Ohio State-Wisconsin football game, meeting with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at an NCSL function in Boston, standing under the state seal of New Mexico, hiking near Phoenix, at Wrigley Field for a Chicago Cubs game, and standing with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan in Cleveland.

By and large, said Axelrod, taxpayer money wasn’t used to cover his client’s travel. Instead, either personal funds or campaign money was used, he said.

State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, plans to introduce legislation that would require more disclosure of gifts and travel money lawmakers receive and ban use of campaign funds for international travel by lawmakers. His bill as written would not close the national conference loophole, however.

Related: Special Report: politicos allowed freebies under Ohio ethics laws‘I can justify…the expenditures we have made’

As speaker, Rosenberger had two campaign funds at his command: the Committee to Elect Cliff Rosenberger and the Ohio House Republican Organizing Committee. Spending from the accounts went beyond just travel. Records show he used $1,242 in campaign funds for a 2016 World Series ticket, $4,055 for Cincinnati Reds tickets in 2017, and $3,155 for Ohio State tickets between 2012 and 2016. And since taking office, he spent more than $31,000 on ‘challenge coins’ — heavy medallions inscribed with his signature, the Ohio Statehouse and the state seal — to give away to supporters and others.

Rosenberger, a 2012 graduate of Wright State University, said in a previous interview: “I can justify every bit of the expenditures we have made and how we made them. At the end of the day, I still donate a record amount of money to the Ohio House campaign committee and will continue to do it even now.”

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