Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger has directed the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee to examine whether Wright State University crossed legal boundaries while seeking state funding for projects, including the September presidential debate.
Emails obtained by the Dayton Daily News show Wright State University consultant Ron Wine advised WSU President David Hopkins to offer to “organize a major fundraiser” when talking to Rosenberger about advocating for state money.
Wine suggested asking Rosenberger for help raising $10 million in private and public funding for the debate, which he estimates could have a total price tag of $30 million. Wright State’s estimate for the debate cost is $3 million to $5 million.
In a Sept. 17 email to Hopkins, Wine makes reference to possibly hosting a “major fundraiser.” Two months later in a Nov. 17 email to Hopkins prior to a scheduled meeting with Rosenberger, Wine again advises Hopkins to tell him that Wright State supporters would host a political fundraiser.
The Nov. 17 email says in part: “Keep in mind that the State has a history of funding special events like our Presidential debate. The request is not out of line and I know they have excess JobsOhio and liquor profits money available. Playing the inside game, I also suggest you let him know the Friends of WSU would like to organize a major fundraiser for his campaign and House Leadership in Dayton in 2016.”
Directly linking campaign fundraising to advocacy for state funds would violate state “pay-to-play” laws.
Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe said in a written statement that JLEC, in its role as the ethics advisory body for legislators, “has long counseled that the offer of political fundraising tied to a specific request for legislative action is not only inappropriate, but dependent on the specific facts, potentially a criminal act. JLEC does not have jurisdiction relative to bribery or extortion. Should this office become aware of facts indicating the offering of contributions in exchange for specific official action, we would make appropriate law enforcement aware of this potential offer of a quid pro quo.”
University spokesman Seth Bauguess said in a written statement: “Wright State University President David Hopkins has not offered to host a political fundraiser for House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger on behalf of the Wright State Community. The November 18 meeting between Hopkins and Rosenberger did not take place nor has it been rescheduled. Wright State does not condone pay-for-play tactics.”
Wine also said in an email Friday that the Nov. 18 meeting didn’t happen, and that he regrets his choice of words. He said he was referencing that he and several WSU employees personally support Rosenberger and would like to help his political career — as private citizens, not in exchange for state funds.
“I have never and will never advocate or advise WSU that they should be engaged in any activity that is based on a ‘pay-to-play’ political strategy,” Wine wrote.
‘I don’t even know what the hell that means’
The Sept. 17 and Nov. 17 emails raised alarms with Rosenberger, a Wright State graduate. The newspaper shared the emails with the House Speaker to determine whether the meeting with WSU officials took place and if an offer for fundraising was made.
“‘Playing the inside game’ — I don’t even know what the hell that means,” the Clarksville Republican said. “I just don’t understand why there are memos talking about how to talk to Cliff Rosenberger.”
He referred the matter to JLEC.
Wine said there was no intention to connect fundraising for Rosenberger with a request for state support.
“The inside game that I was referring to was that politicians in general need to raise money for their election/re-election campaigns and depend on those they know and trust to assist them in that endeavor,” Wine wrote in his email.
“In no way is support from friends of WSU directly or indirectly tied to any budget request or legislative action from any political official on behalf of the university, including Speaker Rosenberger,” Wine wrote.
The JLEC probe is the latest investigation involving Wright State. The school is also in the midst of a federal investigation into the possible misuse of immigration visas issued for foreign workers. In a separate matter, JLEC and the Ohio Attorney General’s office are looking into whether Wine’s work with WSU amounts to unregistered lobbying.
Wine’s expanded role
Wine is a long-time, behind-the-scenes operator in the Miami Valley who boasts a 35-year career in state and local government circles. He led the Dayton Development Coalition from its founding in 1994 until 2004 when he left and became a consultant. Since 2009, he has worked as a consultant for Wright State, a role that was expanded in recent years.
In November, the Daily News revealed that the university had paid Wine nearly $2 million, including almost $1 million in 2014, to be the “chief strategist” for economic development. At times, the newspaper found, he operated and was paid without a written contract with the university. A new five-year agreement signed in May 2015 allows Wine’s company to bill up to $1 million a year through mid-2019.
The university has defended its contract with Wine, and says it has more than paid for itself in terms of the money that he has brought to the school.
Ron Wine Consulting has had other clients, but Wright State is his biggest.
“To be honest, WSU/WSARC (Wright State Applied Research Corp.) is by far my biggest and most important client and financially I need to keep getting paid on a timely basis for our work performed,” Wine said in a July 24, 2015, email to Hopkins’ private account.
Although Wine is not registered with the state as a lobbyist, he is in regular contact with state Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield, provides extensive advice to Hopkins on navigating state politics, sets up meetings with state officials and has coordinated support from other Ohio universities to line up state funds for a newly created Federal Research Network, according to the emails.
University officials last year sought millions in state funding for a new public policy institute, a gaming research lab and a program that links Air Force Research Laboratory with WSU researchers.
In the emails, Wine coaches Hopkins on cultivating his relationship with Rosenberger, who as speaker has enormous power over state funding decisions.
“Continue to build on WSU’s strategic relationship with the Speaker. Make sure we thank him and he understands how important he is to our success going forward,” Wine wrote Hopkins in September before a meeting with Rosenberger that day. “Explain my role with you and WSU to him.”
The Sept. 26 presidential debate will be the highest-profile event in Wright State’s 49-year history. The debate, the first time the Democratic and Republican nominees for president will face off against each other, could draw up to 120 million viewers on television and bring some 3,000 journalists from around the globe to the Miami Valley.
In November, university trustees approved a $2 million payment to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The actual cost could reach around $5 million, although Bauguess, the university spokesman, said it will be “nowhere near” $30 million.
Wine said the $30 million was a “rough estimate” including “the direct, indirect, in-kind, volunteer and staff time thought to be required to conduct the event in the manner WSU intends for it to be done to be able to put the best possible image out there for the university, community and State of Ohio and be a first-class host for the Commission.”
Rosenberger said he is open to discussing state funds to support the presidential debate but he has yet to hear any concrete figures from Hopkins or other Wright State officials.
“I believe we could and should support a big public event. We do that across the state. We’ll do the same for the convention when it comes to Cleveland,” he said. “We’ve done this in the past when big events happen in the state of Ohio. I’m sure we will.”
He added: “I think that at some level we should do something to help but let me put it this way: They don’t need a $1 million advisor to tell them how to ask.”