Republican Josh Mandel is the first Ohio statewide officeholder to use taxpayer dollars to hold “tele-townhall” meetings with Ohioans, where he has answered caller questions on topics ranging from bullying to gasoline prices to consumer scams to pay-to-play fees for high school athletes.
The calls raise questions about elected officials using tax dollars to boost their own name recognition. Many of the subjects discussed have little to do with Mandel’s job, which is to invest and safe keep $11 billion in the state treasury. The calls have the effect of introducing Mandel to tens of thousands of voters — invaluable to someone who is running for re-election — and reinforcing a message that he cares about them.
Mandel refers to callers by name, asks them how they’re doing, thanks them for their questions and deftly weaves in GOP-talking points on issues such as school choice, domestic energy exploration and tax cuts.
“It sounds very much like electioneering to me,” Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck said. “To spend treasurer’s office money on that when the topics range so far and wide from what the treasurer’s office does makes it more electioneering-like.”
Mandel says the calls are a way for Ohioans to hold elected leaders accountable and express their First Amendment rights by asking any question that comes to mind.
In response to a question during a call last week, Mandel acknowledged that the sessions were paid for with state money.
“We do these as a public service for the citizens of the state of Ohio. And we’re trying to give you, as citizens, an opportunity to ask questions and to hold me accountable,” Mandel said. “We are following the footsteps of many public officials throughout the state of Ohio who have been doing this for a long time and trying to make myself accessible and you can hold me accountable and ask any questions you’d like.”
While members of Congress have used public money for telephone town halls, Mandel is the first statewide officeholder to use tax money to pay for such calls. Other state officials have held in-person townhall meetings in communities, but the telephone calls allow constituents to interact from the comfort of home, according to Mandel.
Democrats call it campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime.
“Josh Mandel is a pioneer in finding different ways to use his official office to further his political career,” said Brian Hester, Ohio Democratic Party spokesman. “It’s tough to sell ‘transparent and accountable’ when you barely advertise the event, handpick the audience, and screen every question. Waiting until six months before Election Day to start holding these town halls is yet another example of Mandel using taxpayer money to support his re-election campaign, instead of doing his job.”
Mandel, who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2012, is facing a tough re-election battle against state Rep. Connie Pillich, D-Cincinnati. Pillich, 53, and Mandel, 36, both are lawyers and military veterans who have served time in the Ohio House.
Mandel began holding the calls soon after getting the all-clear legal opinion from fellow Republican Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in February.
Mandel hired two vendors in April for $49,500 each — just under the threshold for getting contract approval through the state Controlling Board. In just five weeks, Mandel held nine such calls at a cost of more than $37,000, according to documents obtained by this newspaper through public information requests. Contracts with the vendors, iConstituent and Telephone Town Hall Meetings, run through June 30 and Mandel’s aides say they may be continued into the next fiscal year.
The vendors have dialed more than 508,539 Ohio households and more than 117,824 people have accepted the calls. On average participants stay on for two-and-a-half to five minutes during the hour-long calls.
Mandel has touched frequently on an issue hugely important to seniors: the homestead property tax exemption.
During the May 8 call, Mandel said: “When I was in the state legislature I was very involved with issues related to the homestead exemption and I think because senior citizens so often are on fixed incomes it’s important that we try to lower those property taxes as low as possible and if it’s possible to eliminate the property taxes for senior citizens I’m for that.”
Mandel again said he favored the homestead property tax exemption to assist seniors in the May 21 and June 4 calls.
He pointed to a proposal he sponsored as a Lyndhurst City Council member to roll back property taxes but he failed to disclose that in 2008 he was one of five state lawmakers to vote against expanding the homestead exemption to cover seniors and disabled homeowners living in multi-unit cooperatives.
The homestead exemption allows senior citizens and disabled Ohioans to shield $25,000 of the market value of their home from all local property taxes. It used to apply only to those earning less than $26,200 a year. The law changed in 2008 to cover all seniors and disabled homeowners. The law changed again this year to add back some means testing.
Mandel press secretary Chris Berry said Mandel voted against the bill that expanded the exemption to cover co-ops because that legislation contained an unrelated provision that authorized a lodging tax hike in one county.
‘We value your feedback’
On some of the calls a polling prompt asks participants to weigh in minute by minute on what they like and dislike — micro-targeted information that could be very valuable to any political candidate. “You should feel free to react each and every time that something said makes you either positive or negative. There is no limit to the number of times you can react. We value your feedback on every issue,” the prompt says at the beginning of the May 5 and May 8 call.
Berry said the information is not being used for political purposes.
“We have never received or asked to receive information on the results of that polling functionality,” Berry said. “And to the contrary, we’ve specifically communicated to both companies that our office does not want any polls conducted during our telephone town halls.”
Not everyone gets a chance to ask their questions during the calls but the treasurer provides a toll-free number for follow up information. Berry said the office has received about 150 inquiries since the calls began, but it’s not tracked whether the questions stem from the tele-townhalls or otherwise.
In his legal opinion, DeWine said Mandel could stray from treasurer topics if the issue is a matter of general interest to Ohio citizens or a participant specifically asks him to address a topic.
DeWine also wrote that Mandel could invite people to participate as long as non-invitees had a way to call in as well.
On Friday, state Auditor Dave Yost issued advice for officials using public money to pay for tele townhalls that included having an agenda, keeping minutes, giving notice to media and other policies.
Mandel’s staff posts notice of the calls just 24 hours in advance. Anyone wishing to dial in must regularly check the treasurer’s website for upcoming calls.
The Mandel administration seems to be ignoring a handful of “best practices” recommended by iConstituent, one of the vendors used by the office, including posting the audio recordings online, scheduling the calls a week in advance and publicizing the calls via Twitter and Facebook.
Berry said recordings are not posted online because the administration didn’t want to violate participants’ privacy. This newspaper received audio files through a public records request. Participants are notified at the beginning that the calls may be monitored, recorded or re-broadcast later.
Mandel’s spokesman says members of Ohio’s congressional delegation use publicly funded teletown halls on a regular basis to stay in touch with constituents. His opponent in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, Democrat Sherrod Brown, used tax dollars to send 387 email messages and hold 38 tele-townhalls to reach out to 1.1 million Ohioans, according to Mandel. Seven U.S. House members, including John Boehner, Jim Jordan and Mike Turner, have used tele-townhalls, he said.
OSU professor Beck noted that unlike a state treasurer, members of Congress work on a wide field of issues so a tele-conference allows them to get feedback from constituents on an array of topics.
Mandel boosts profile
In addition to the tele-townhall calls, Mandel is taking other taxpayer-funded steps that serve to boost his public profile.
A review of his public calendar for Jan. 1 to June 1, shows he toured 22 plants, held 10 roundtable discussions or workshops, delivered 24 speeches and gave 22 media interviews. In contrast, in his first five months as treasurer, Mandel held five roundtable discussions, gave five media interviews, made eight speeches and toured no plants, according to his official public schedule.
Berry said Mandel’s focus early in his term was on getting the office up and running but he is committed engaging constituents through an array of forums.
Mandel began the tele-townhalls at the same time he rolled out a newly created ‘Ohio Strong’ award for workers in the manufacturing sector — a program that has him traveling the state as he hands out awards to companies and employees through the program.
Campaign finance filings reviewed by the Associated Press show Mandel’s re-election campaign received donations from executives at three of the firms within weeks of their skilled-trades employees being recognized. One executive said his contribution was solicited, according to the AP story.
Mandel told the AP that politics never came up in the award selection.
Tainted campaign contributions
All of this comes as Mandel’s name is linked to a federal campaign finance corruption trial underway in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.
Canton businessman Ben Suarez is charged with campaign finance violations, conspiracy, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Federal authorities allege that Suarez recruited straw donors to give $200,000 in campaign donations to Mandel and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth.
Renacci and Mandel have not been charged with crimes and both men returned the donations after the media began writing about the case.
Mandel wrote two letters on state treasurer letterhead advocating for Suarez Corp. Industries’ business interests in California at the same time that Suarez was raising $100,000 for Mandel’s campaign for U.S. Senate. Three days after Mandel sent a letter to the California state treasurer, donations began flowing from Suarez Corp. employees and their spouses. Federal authorities allege that the donations came from Suarez Corp., not the employees, and were thus illegal.
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