And when Rosenberger traveled to Normandy, France in September 2017, Stewart did too. Advance America was listed as a sponsor along with Walmart, Reynolds American, Mainstreet and Ginni Ragan, a major donor to the Ohio House GOP campaigns.
Advance America, which has 2,000 stores across the nation, employs lobbyists to influence legislation, including House Bill 123, a payday lending reform measure that had been stalled in the Ohio House for months.
Rosenberger, who resigned earlier this month after disclosing that he hired a criminal defense attorney to deal with an FBI inquiry, has said his activities were ethical and lawful. He did not return messages seeking comment for this story.
His attorney David Axelrod said “All of his travel was perfectly legal and properly reported.” Axelrod added that taxpayers did not foot the bill for out-of-state trips because Rosenberger used campaign funds or personal money.
The FBI has declined to confirm or deny any investigation and Axelrod said his client has not been contacted.
Sources say the FBI is looking at the London trip, which also included LoanMax lobbyists Leslie Gaines of South Carolina and Steve Dimon of Columbus. Sources said lobbyists and officials from other industries — telecommunications, retail and pharmaceuticals — also went on the London trip.
Stewart did not return messages seeking comment but Advance America released a statement: “Like many companies, Advance America engages with and educates legislators and thought leaders on issues that are important to the industry. We have always been, and continue to be, committed to doing so in an ethical and responsible way.”
Springfield pastor Carl Ruby, who urges lawmakers to pass HB123, said: "Politicians need to remember that they are elected by voters, not by corporations," Ruby said. "Any trips that are provided for legislators need to be clearly and directly related to the best interests of the district where they serve. It's fairly self evident that if corporations like those associated with the payday lending industry lavish attention of legislators they expect something in return."
Ruby added: “There is certain sleaziness to these arrangements that disgusts voters and causes us to feel that the political system is tilted against us.”
Trips raise ethics questions
Junkets offer an opportunity for lobbyists to rub elbows with legislative leaders as they attend wine tastings, tour landmarks, stay in fancy hotels and build relationships
National organizations plan the itineraries, invite participants, take donations from sponsors and provide “scholarships” to cover the politicos’ travel expenses; corporate sponsors may also send people on the trips with the elected officials.
Ethics experts said the arrangement raises red flags.
“That creates an enormous potential for undue access and influence. An average voter in the state isn’t going to be able to fund an international vacation, complete with wine tastings and sight-seeing, with their lawmaker,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center. Spending days with a lawmaker gives special interests a chance to build a relationship, he said. “That can warp policy in favor of special interests rather than voters.”
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which promotes government transparency, said “It’s always dangerous when you have private interests paying for the activities of public officials. It creates the opportunity for a private entity with business pending before the public official to provide financial benefits and get public policy actions in return.”
He added: “The bottom line is private interests should not be paying for trips by public officials.”
Before he resigned, Rosenberger determined that the London trip as well as a four-day stop in Iceland were campaign-related and not subject to public disclosure but Speaker Pro Tempore Kirk Schuring decided to release the records, according to House GOP spokesman Brad Miller.
“Any clue if he is going for sure?” asked Rosenberger aide Tyler Yaple to Mike Dittoe, Rosenberger’s then-chief of staff, in an email in April 2017.
“I would be surprised if he didn’t go,” Dittoe wrote in an email.
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.
Likewise, wining and dining expenses racked up by lobbyists and their clients at these national conferences only has to be reported to ethics officials in the aggregate. Lawmakers have no duty to report what was spent on them for meals and beverages at these conferences.
Based on public records and interviews, here is a deeper look at each of three international trips Rosenberger took:
The State Legislative Leadership Foundation spent $25,367 on the trip to Beijing and Nanjing, China with a dozen legislative leaders, according to IRS filings.
Rosenberger said on his 2016 ethics disclosure that the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries paid for $1,190 in travel that year while SLLF paid for $5,360 in travel – though his state calendar shows he traveled to SLLF events in China, Burlington, Vt. and Honolulu, Hawaii in 2016.
Webb, Rosenberger’s former aide who now works at Ohio State University, confirmed that he accompanied Rosenberger and corporate sponsors on the trip but declined further comment.
Rosenberger’s official calendar said the itinerary included a tour of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, a stay at one of Beijing’s oldest luxury hotels and a high-speed rail trip to Shanghai. The participant list included Rosenberger and legislative leaders from 11 other states and corporate representatives from Advance America, Comcast Cable and Thornton Group LLC.
SLLF is a non-partisan organization supported by corporate contributions and membership dues. Its website says: “Private sector representatives who sponsor a particular program or become part of the Foundation’s Advisory Council are encouraged to interact with state legislative leaders in the classroom, and in various social and cultural settings.”
GOPAC Education Fund, which advocates for advancement of Republican officeholders, allowed up to 12 sponsors to each pay $25,000 toward the four-day trip to London, according to documents released by the Ohio House. Along for the trip were GOPAC staff as well as payday lender lobbyists Steve Dimon of Ohio and Leslie Roper Gaines of South Carolina, who represent Select Management Resources, LLC, parent company of LoanMax.
Rosenberger arrived in London with Wisconsin Speaker Robin Vos, following a four-day stop in Iceland. GOPAC sent a chauffeured car to pick up Vos and Rosenberger at Heathrow Airport and whisk them off to The Conrad St. James, a five-star hotel close to Buckingham Palace, according to records released by the House.
Joining Vos and Rosenberger on the trip were legislative leaders from Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky and North Dakota.
The itinerary included a private tour of the Churchill War Rooms and lunch with Celia Sandys, granddaughter of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as well as sight-seeing tours and afternoon tea.
The six-day junket arranged by the National Conference of State Legislatures featured visits to World War II historic sites, including Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery. “This executive level training is for top legislative leaders. A small number of NCSL’s Foundation for State Legislatures are sponsoring the event and will join the group,” the planning documents said.
The National Conference of State Legislatures Foundation takes donations from dozens of corporate sponsors and allows corporate officials to sit on its 45-member board.
NCSL spokesman Tim Storey said the trip to Normandy cost the organization about $100,000. He declined to disclose which legislators and sponsors went on the trip. But documents released by the Ohio House shows legislative leaders from 11 states were confirmed and five sponsors were listed, including Stewart of Advance America.
The document also lists as a sponsor Ginni Ragan, a wealthy heiress and major donor to the House GOP campaigns, for U.S. Marine Capt. Greg Jurschak. It is not disclosed why Jurschak was listed on trip planning documents. Rosenberger recognized Jurschak on the House floor on Sept. 20 and said that Jurschak was the catcher when Rosenberger threw out the first pitch at the Sept. 19 Cincinnati Reds game.
Rosenberger has strong ties to Ragan, who rented a luxury condo in downtown Columbus to him, starting in 2014, shortly after she bought it for $660,000. Also, Greif, Inc. — the company where Ragan derives much of her wealth — paid for $1,067 worth of travel for Rosenberger that year.
Axelrod said Rosenberger’s resignation should not be interpreted as an admission of guilt; he stepped down because he believes it was in the best interest of the Legislature and state.
“We remain confident that he will ultimately be vindicated,” Axelrod said.
Rosenberger and Vos served on the boards of both SLLF and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Stewart is also listed among the NCSL Foundation for State Legislatures’ volunteer board of directors and Advance America is listed as a member of the SLLF Advisory Council.
UNMATCHED COVERAGE: FIRST TO REPORT THE STORY
On April 6, our Columbus Bureau reporter Laura Bischoff was the first reporter in Ohio to report that House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger had hired a defense attorney. Now, Rosenberger is the first Ohio speaker in more than 50 years to resign. Follow Laura on Twitter at @lbischoff. Get the latest from our political team on our Ohio Politics Facebook page
Laura Bischoff is our Columbus bureau reporter and covers politics and state government. She keeps a close eye on elected leaders, public employees and taxpayer money. Bischoff tries to write stories that inform voters, hold leaders accountable and strengthen democracy.