Lawmaker lands contract at CSU

Chris Widener contract signed on day after he leaves Senate.

Widener, who signed the agreement on behalf of Achieve Strategy Group LLC, will advise Central State University President Cynthia Hammond on everything from college affordability to graduation rates to campus diversity. The 12-month consulting job runs from Feb. 1, 2016, to Jan. 31, 2017.

Widener abruptly announced on Jan. 21 that he was leaving office with 11 months left on his term in the Senate, where he held the number two leadership post and served on the powerful state Controlling Board. His resignation took effect Sunday.

Widener, an architect, and Achieve Strategy Group will serve as Hammond’s liaison to the community, businesses, public and private agencies and will collaborate with university lobbyists, the agreement states. He is expected to help university leaders on key issues such as shoring up finances, developing science, engineering, technology and math curriculum, and implementing federal grant programs.

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio said, “It’s unreasonable for the general public to buy that all of a sudden, the day after he retires, that he is immediately awarded a contract. It’s not appropriate. It’s not good government. The legislature has a responsibility to engage in ethical contracting, and voters just deserve better.”

As a lawmaker, Widener represented the Central State campus and pushed for a resolution in the legislature that called for giving CSU land grant status, which is now netting the university millions of dollars in additional state and federal money.

Land grant schools have access to additional federal funds and agricultural research money. On Aug. 31, 2015, the state Controlling Board, on which Widener served, approved a request to put up $1.62 million in state money as a match for land grant federal funding at Central State. The university needed to pull together $3.85 million in match money to apply for a $5.1 million federal grant.

“We were able to do something that hadn’t been done in 120 years,” Widener said in October of the new status.

Central State was placed on fiscal watch by the Ohio Board of Regents in April 2015 and in September 2015 state Auditor Dave Yost reported that the university wasn’t doing enough to collect past-due accounts.

Central State is unique in Ohio for its student body. The university enrolls the highest rate of students from Ohio’s urban, high-poverty high schools of any public institution in the state. Many students are the first in their family to go to college, and the majority qualify for the federal Pell Grant — financial aid given to low-income students.

Central State receives $11 million a year in special state subsidies to help keep tuition affordable for low-income students. It also will receive an additional $5.1 million in state funds for new agricultural programs related to its land grant status, according to the state budget bill for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

It is unclear when Widener and Central State first began discussing the consulting job for him.

On Dec. 7, Widener pitched his services to the Southwestern Ohio Council on Higher Education, a consortium of public and private colleges and universities. Widener suggested his architecture firm would identify military experience and education that could be translated into college credit for veterans. Widener proposed $150,000 fee, plus up to $5,000 in reimbursable expenses for that work.

Widener has refused to comment on that pitch, or anything else for that matter. “I have no comment. I don’t care what your question is, I have no comment,” he told the Dayton Daily News last week.

Ohio ethics laws bar legislators from using their official influence to authorize or approve a contract in which they have an interest. They are advised to steer clear of voting on, debating or otherwise participating in matters that involve entities in which they’re seeking employment or contracts, according to the Ohio Legislative Inspector General.

Turcer said Widener’s contract with Central State speaks to the need for Ohio to have stronger revolving door laws, and she noted that if it were a lobbying contract it would have required approval from the Ohio State Controlling Board, which Widener sat on just last week.

Staff writers Josh Sweigart and Lance Lambert contributed to this report.

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