WSU ties to Austria kept hidden

University says contract not subject to public records laws.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

Former U.S. congressman turned lobbyist Steve Austria was paid an undisclosed amount of money under a one-year contract with a non-profit created and controlled by Wright State University, an I-Team investigation found.

This comes as the university faces dual probes into its contracts with consultants — centered largely on up to $1 million a year paid to consultant Ron Wine — and whether the deals amount to lobbying contracts that run afoul of state law.

That law requires universities to get approval from the Ohio Controlling Board before entering into a sizable contract with someone paid to shape public policy.

Wright State officials maintain neither Austria nor Wine were paid as lobbyists.

Austria became a registered lobbyist this year. His current clients are Ohio Christian University and Sugar Creek Packing Company, according to state records. He also registered as a federal lobbyist after waiting the required one-year period after the Beavercreek Republican lost his seat in 2013 to congressional redistricting.

Officials with Double Bowler Properties — a non-profit created by Wright State to purchase property for the school — say their one year contract with Austria that ended in June 2015 was for consulting, not lobbying.

Double Bowler CEO Greg Sample said Austria was hired by Sample's predecessor, Ryan Fendley, a former Wright State administrator who was fired amid a federal probe into possible immigration law violations. That investigation is separate from the state lobbying investigations launched by the Ohio Attorney General and the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee.

“I believe Mr. Fendley felt Mr. Austria had a comprehensive understanding of the local market and was best suited to help Double Bowler get up and running,” Sample said. “(Austria) holds a variety of relationships at the local level especially in the geographic area of Beavercreek and Fairborn which is also the primary service market for Double Bowler. The contract was solely for consulting services and contained no references to any lobbying.”

Austria declined an interview, saying in an email he is “required to protect the confidentiality of my clients.” But he added: “I have never been engaged in nor have I ever lobbied on behalf of Wright State University or Double Bowler at the state or federal levels.”

Double Bowler officials won't provide Austria's contract or say how much the former congressman was paid, claiming the nonprofit is separate from Wright State and is not subject to public records laws. Double Bowler's funding comes from the university and its five-member board is comprised solely of WSU trustees or employees.

‘No one is saying they broke the law’

The withholding of information on the size of Austria’s contract with Double Bowler doesn’t sit well with Catherine Turcer, policy analyst for the left-leaning Common Cause Ohio.

“In other words they created a quasi-governmental non-profit probably to avoid disclosing all kind of things that might be useful for the public to know,” Turcer said.

A registered lobbyist herself, Turcer said universities appear to be going out of their way to creatively skirt lobbying restrictions.

“No one is saying they broke the law, but these are entities that are responsible to the state of Ohio and there’s no reason for them to play games,” she said.

The chairman of Double Bowler's board, Michael Bridges, also is chairman of the WSU board of trustees. Bridges is the president and founder of the Beavercreek-based defense contracting firm Peerless Technologies, which has engaged Austria's firm as a consultant since he left Congress in 2013.

"He (Austria) now advises Peerless and its federal clients in facilitating their business relationships with governmental officials and organizations," Peerless' website says.

Bridges wouldn’t comment on what Austria does for Peerless — “I run a private company,” he said — and referred questions about Double Bowler to Sample.

But Bridges said Peerless is a defense contractor not involved in real estate acquisition, while Double Bowler is a real estate acquisition agency not involved in defense contracting. Therefore there is no conflict in Austria contracting with both entities, Bridges said.

“We are two entirely different worlds,” he said.

Wine: I’m not a lobbyist

The investigations by the Ohio Attorney General and the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee are examining whether Wine was required to register as a lobbyist in his work for WSU.

An I-Team investigation found Ron Wine Consulting Group billed Wright State $957,000 in 2014 — with no written contract in effect — and his current contract allows him to bill up to $1 million per year.

In exchange, Wine is expected to garner $20 million in the state budget over the next two years, bring in $140 million in federal contracts over the next three years, and achieve sustained annual research revenue of $100 million for the university by mid-2018.

Turcer questioned the university’s claims that Wine is not lobbying on its behalf.

“If your deliverables are to actually get money from the state and federal government, you’re a lobbyist,” said Turcer. “If your deliverables are to impact government, and to have them distribute taxpayer money, then how is that not lobbying?”

But state law defines lobbying as having "direct communication" with policymakers and certain agency officials. And Wine says he does little of that.

“My firm’s role with WSU/WSARC and my personal involvement has never been nor is it currently focused on direct lobbying,” Wine wrote in a letter to JLEC this month, elaborating that his work was focused more on strategy and relationship building.

Wine, who has repeatedly refused to comment to this newspaper, wrote to JLEC that he has employed eight people to help fulfill the WSU contract since 2009. And in 2014, his firm logged 2,375 hours of consulting time. Of this, he says less than 20 hours were spent lobbying, falling far short of the threshold that requires someone to register as a lobbyist.

“The university has engaged the services of Ron Wine Consulting Group to assist the University in developing strategy for research, workforce, and economic development,” says a separate letter to JLEC this month from WSU President David Hopkins. “The University did not engage Mr. Wine as a lobbyist.”

People who are paid to advocate their client’s interests before state officials must register as lobbyists if that part of their job exceeds 5 percent of their workload for legislative lobbying or 25 percent of their time for executive branch lobbying.

Emails obtained by the I-Team show Wine did deal directly with lawmakers, but also frequently coached Hopkins before his meetings. On Nov. 17, for example, Wine emailed Hopkins a “background paper” outlining what the WSU president was to discuss in a meeting with Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger the next day.

In addition to state funding requests, it included this tip: “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.”

Another Wine business

Emails obtained by the I-Team also show Wright State did business with another company that had dealings with Wine: Data Analytic Services. Wine lists one of his business partners as WSU lobbyist Kevin DeWine, though DeWine claims no involvement in DAS.

University records show DAS entered into a contract with Wright State from November 2014 through April 2015 worth $7,500 a month.

“DAS’ initial focus will be on developing data and demographic information in areas that can provide WSU with increased revenue and influence opportunities,” the contract says, referencing data on alumni, vendors, donors and student family members and others.

The contract was signed by Carissa Clark, who incorporated the business (as well as Ron Wine Consulting Group). When reached by phone, she wouldn't comment on the contract or who her partners were.

In addition to this contract, emails from Wine to Hopkins and demoted WSU Provost Sundaram Narayanan reference efforts to enter into a separate contract with the Wright State University Foundation. In one, Wine refers to Clark and Kevin DeWine as "partners."

“While I do not speak about client matters in the media, I can say that I have no contractual or financial stake in any other organization serving Wright State,” DeWine said when asked about DAS.

“Our work is through the Wright State Research Institute and I am very proud of the work that we have done on behalf of WSRI to advance the interests of the University and the entire Miami Valley region.”

DeWine, a former state lawmaker and Ohio GOP chairman, has a $25,000 contract with WSU that covers lobbying, as well as a $228,000 contract next year for a consulting contract similar to Wine’s that prohibits lobbying.

Ohio Controlling Board President Christine Morrison said her board reviews contracts brought to them, and has no jurisdiction over whether universities should be bringing them non-lobbying contracts with lobbyists.

“We’ve always just taken the approach that it’s the law and they have compliance offices at all of these universities and we expect them to follow the law,” she said.

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