Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger rents a 2,237-square-foot luxury condo in downtown Columbus owned by Ginni Ragan, an heiress who has contributed more than $1.5 million to Ohio Republicans’ campaigns since 2010.
Rosenberger says he pays a nightly rate that Ragan and her attorneys calculated to be the fair market rent, but he declined to disclose the rate or provide documentation of his payments.
“I don’t want to open my personal checkbook to say here’s all my checks. I’m told I don’t have to do it,” he said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News.
He is right. State law doesn’t require such disclosure.
In March 2014 — the same month Ragan bought the condo for $660,000 — Rosenberger and state Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, received a three-page legal opinion from Joint Legislative Ethics Committee Director Tony W. Bledsoe that said since Ragan isn’t a lobbyist or state vendor, renting her property isn’t prohibited.
Bledsoe advised the two men to keep written records, calculate the fair market rate based on the median rental cost of similar residences in the immediate area and if the charges fall below fair market rates, disclose this as a gift from Ragan on their annual ethics statements.
Rosenberger, who is single and lives in a house owned by his parents in Clarksville, disclosed that he received gifts from Ragan in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Financial disclosure statements covering 2016 are due to be filed in May.
Smith is married with four kids and lives in Bidwell. He disclosed gifts from Ragan in 2013, 2014 and 2015 as well as gifts from Rosenberger in 2013 and 2014.
The value and nature of gifts does not have to be disclosed under Ohio ethics law. Rosenberger said the gifts from Ragan have not been rent subsidies, but instead were personal items such a framed photo of astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn Jr.
Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio, a liberal leaning government watchdog group, said the “unusual” rental arrangement between Ragan and Rosenberger may be legal but it shows how Ohio’s ethics law could be strengthened with more mandated transparency.
“Disclosure can feel awkward and intrusive, but there is a public good,” she said. “Transparency allows voters to weigh for themselves whether there is a problem…If the ethics law required more information, we would know if a major donor was providing subsidized housing for the speaker.”
She said the arrangement raises another question: “Is this something Ginni Ragan would give to other folks or is (Rosenberger) getting a sweet deal because he is the speaker?”
Two listings on Zillow.com of downtown Columbus condos show monthly rental rates of $1,700 to $1,900 for smaller units than the one Rosenberger uses.
Properties at Northbank Condos have sold for $348,000 to $2.9 million, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Franklin County property records show that Ragan owns four units, either through a trust in her name or through Northbank 503 LLC. They are a three-bedroom, 4,788-square-foot condo on the sixteenth floor purchased in 2013 for $1.99 million; a two-bedroom, 2,237-square-foot condo purchased in 2015 for $925,000; a two-bedroom, 2,237-square-foot condo purchased in March 2014 for $660,000 and used by Rosenberger; and a two-bedroom, 2,486-square-foot condo purchased in 2014 for $700,000.
She also owns 10 parking spaces at the Northbank property, each valued at $30,000.
Smith, who Rosenberger tapped to be chairman of the House Finance Committee, no longer uses the condo due to cost, he said. Smith declined to disclose what rental rate Ragan charged.
Rosenberger also said he is re-evaluating whether he will stay, though it is convenient because Ragan allows him to keep his dog, a Beagle named W, at the condo when he is in Columbus.
“It’s getting, quite frankly, difficult to keep up with (the rental expense,)” Rosenberger said.
Inquiries from lawmakers about lodging arrangements aren’t uncommon, Bledsoe said.
“There are a number of housing arrangements for those who have to travel a long distance or are in (legislative) leadership (positions,)” Bledsoe said. Lawmakers often stay at hotels, rent apartments, buy property or room with other lawmakers or even with lobbyists.
State Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, who served as Senate president, bought a 1,024-square-foot, two-bedroom condo in March 2007 in Columbus and rents space to current Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, and state Treasurer Josh Mandel.
Ragan is well known to Republican lawmakers as a top political donor to their campaigns: $154,467 in 2011, $195,044 in 2012, $160,766 in 2013, $473,525 in 2014, $165,740 in 2015, and $383,794 in 2016.
Additionally, she has contributed $147,058 to the Ohio Republican Party and the Republican legislative political committees since 2011.
While Ragan is not a lobbyist or state vendor, she has been a long-time advocate for issues related to the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s. She has testified on state budget bills and served on the Ohio Advisory Council for Aging.
She could not be reached for comment on this story.
Her father, John C. Dempsey, was the long-time chairman of Greif Inc., a manufacturer of industrial packaging that started in 1887 in Cleveland as a barrel maker. Forbes reported in 2012 that Ragan’s stake in Greif is worth about $186 million.
Ragan attended college with former Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, and has been close friends with former state Rep. Jim Buchy, R-Greenville, Rosenberger said.
Ragan’s membership at The Bay Club in Bonita Springs, Florida is enabling Rosenberger to host a “winter warmer” fundraiser at the exclusive, private club next month.
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about the living arrangements of an Ohio House speaker. In 2009, the issue of Republican Jon Husted’s residency — Kettering or Columbus — went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court.Rosenberger said, “Regardless of whether she’s a donor to the caucus or not, Ginni would still be my friend….And I expect to be friends with Ginni way longer after I’m speaker.”
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