Two top-level staffers in the Ohio Senate were paid tens of thousands of dollars from their Republican consulting business while maintaining full-time taxpayer-funded state jobs — an unusual arrangement that raises questions about how much oversight Senate leaders provide of top staff and whether ethics rules were violated.
Political appointees often use leave time from state jobs to work on campaigns and are then compensated by the campaign committees, which are not funded by taxpayers. But Senate Chief of Staff Jason Mauk and Communications Director John McClelland used leave time for political work while continuing to hold state jobs that paid them nearly $232,000 last year — $132,110 for Mauk and $99,663 for McClelland.
Earning side money while working for the state isn’t on its face a violation of Ohio ethics laws. But the laws prohibit state employees from using state resources — such as time, phones, and parking spots — while doing outside work.
In June, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor’s chief of staff, Laura Johnson, and an assistant, Heather Brandt, each resigned their state jobs after officials determined their time cards did not match their parking records and they were out of the office more than their flex schedules allowed. Taylor referred the matter to the Ohio Inspector General for investigation.
An investigation by this newspaper into the business set up by Mauk and McClelland found numerous instances of sloppy record keeping, poor oversight and the possibility that their government and political jobs may have bled together. The newspaper examined calendars, parking pass records, and records on state government leave and comp time during the period the two Senate staffers did work for the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. The investigation revealed:
- Mauk and McClelland were allowed to revise leave and comp time records going back several months even though the Senate Employee Handbook states that leave must be approved in advance and comp time must be filed within two weeks.
- McClelland asked Mauk, his business partner, to grant him leave time and a flexible schedule for his state job.
- Mauk on at least 21 occasions parked in the state garage — a benefit provided to some government staff — while his calendar showed he was off for most or all of the day on comp time.
- On at least three occasions, Mauk did not take leave time for work that appears to be political in nature.
“I think the taxpayer expects a full day’s work out of their public servants,” said Matt Mayer, president of Opportunity Ohio, a conservative think tank that advocates for smaller, more transparent government. “If these guys want to have a consulting firm doing political work, then they should quit their jobs and go be political hacks. What you have dug up shows at best bad judgment and at worst potential fraud that needs to be investigated.”
Mauk and McClelland are managing GOP campaigns for incumbents and challengers in several Senate legislative races, including the 5th District, where Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, is opposed by Democrat Dee Gillis.
Mauk said Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe told them they were operating within the law as long as their campaign activity wasn’t done on state time. Bledsoe gave a similar response to this newspaper, although he said he would advise staff members to be extremely cautious.
“Obviously we’re not volunteering because we are spending a considerable amount of time over there (in the campaign offices),” Mauk said. “But I think (Senate) President (Keith) Faber did not want to leave open any ability for someone to associate the two jobs. Meaning, you know, no one would have the ability to say that your job expectation at the Senate is to go work on a campaign committee because he feels strongly about separating the two entities and keeping a clear firewall between one and the other.”
‘No one gets wealthy’
Mauk and McClelland are long-time political operatives who held top jobs for the Ohio Republican Party before getting hired by the Republican-dominated Senate on Feb. 14, 2011. Mauk was the party’s executive director and McClelland the communications director. Mauk also worked on the unsuccessful campaign to defend Senate Bill 5, a law gutting collective bargaining rights for public workers that was signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich but rejected by voters.
Mauk and McClelland are among the highest-paid staffers in the Ohio General Assembly, though McClelland took an unpaid leave the first week of July to work full-time for Penmen and has not returned.
Mauk is paid $63.46 an hour and made $132,110 last year while McClelland is paid $56.73 an hour and made $99,663 last year. Additionally, McClelland’s wife, Angelika McClelland, another former Ohio GOP worker, was hired by the Senate in August 2012 and made $96,430 last year. She coordinates the Emma Project, which organizes staff and senators to do community volunteer work, and handles other duties. John McClelland also won a seat in November the New Albany School Board in suburban Columbus following a campaign that was funded almost entirely by contributions from Mauk and state senators’ campaign accounts.
Mauk and McClelland formed a for-profit company, Penmen Group, LLC, on April 8 of this year, its name a reference to their Pennsylvania roots. Ten days later, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee paid Penmen $79,600 for work done this year and last year on behalf of GOP legislative candidates.
Mauk said the payments were deferred until he and his partner could established the limited liability corporation, or LLC. He said the company gives them tax protections they wouldn’t have if they were paid as individuals through the campaign committee.
“At the end of the day, no one gets wealthy off of running legislative campaigns — at least not on this side,” Mauk said.
Politics v. government
It is difficult to determine where Mauk and McClelland’s state government jobs end and their political work begins.
For example, Mauk’s calendar and parking pass records show he left the Ohio Statehouse at 2:47 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2013, for an hour-long meeting with Rex Elsass at Strategy Group for Media, the firm that produces political ads for Republican candidates. Mauk did not take leave during that time, records show. Elsass said his records indicate he was out of state that day, though he did not rule out the possibility that Mauk may have met with SGM staff.
Likewise, Mauk’s calendar shows four meetings scheduled in 2013 and 2014 with Vaughn Flasher, the outside political consultant who previously ran Senate Republican legislative campaigns before Penmen took over. In three of those scheduled meetings, Mauk did not take leave and the fourth fell over the lunch hour.
Mauk said only official business and not political meetings are placed on his calendar. He also said he does not attend all the meetings that are listed.
Flasher said one of the four meetings was canceled. Two were held to discuss politics and the third meeting, which fell over a lunch hour, was non-political, he said.
Records that would allow supervisors to monitor the hours logged by the two staffers were not up to date, the newspaper investigation revealed. The paper’s initial inquiry into Penmen came on Friday, June 20. The next day, McClelland poured over state government leave records and both Mauk and McClelland put in extra hours on Sunday, according to their comp time records.
Frank Strigari, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Senate, confirmed that Mauk and McClelland were revising leave and comp time records during that weekend. Documents provided by Strigari show Mauk and McClelland changed 62 comp accrual and leave records for 2014. Mauk’s revisions account for 16 days when he was tardy in 2014.
Strigari said the revisions do not constitute “backdating.”
“Neither Mr. Mauk nor Mr. McClelland ‘backdated’ comp time accrual or leave records on file with the Senate Clerk’s Office,” he wrote in an email.
The Senate Employee Handbook requires that leave be approved in advance and that comp time be filed within two weeks.
Retroactive filing of leave time shouldn’t be allowed, Mayer said. “Memories fade. Why weren’t they keeping records in the ordinary course of business as every state employee is supposed to do?”
Mauk said the paperwork they did that weekend was part of an internal review of staff leave time that Faber, R-Celina, had previously ordered. He also said that the handbook provides guidelines, not mandatory rules.
In the revisions, Mauk submitted that he had earned an additional 25.5 compensation hours and that he had used 29.5 hours of comp and sick time that had not been documented previously. McClelland revised his records to show an additional 12 hours of comp time accrued for 2014 and an extra 74 hours of vacation, comp time and unpaid leave taken.
The revisions were signed by Senate Clerk Vince Keeran, who does not supervise either Mauk or McClelland but is part of the senior management team.
Mauk said in an email that there is historical precedent for retroactive time approvals, though he did not say whether other Senate employees were allowed to revise their leave records this year.
Tracking employee’s hours is difficult because of the lack of records. While the Ohio House uses a keycard system to track employees comings and goings, a similar system is now being installed in the Senate. The lack of a tracking system leaves just parking records for a glimpse of the hours some employees keep. But parking records don’t reflect when workers bike, bus or carpool to work or when they leave their desks to go work in a nearby campaign office.
The parking records, though, raise questions about how much oversight is made over top Senate staff.
Between January 2013 and June 2014, Mauk parked 21 times in the state garage while off for most or all of the day on comp time, according to an analysis of his leave and parking records. It is more difficult to determine how many times McClelland parked in his government-paid spot while off for most or all of the day since both he and his wife have state jobs and may have carpooled together or switched passes. Likewise, a pass holder may pull a ticket to pay the daily parking fee but his transponder may record it as a pass entry into the garage.
Mauk’s parking records also show he frequently arrives after the designated at 8:30 a.m. start time for Senate staffers. Leaving early or arriving late requires using leave time. Failure to follow the schedule, without written approval from Mauk, could lead to firing, according to the handbook.
But Mauk’s parking pass records indicate he often fails to follow the schedule himself. From January 2013 to June 2014, he entered the parking garage 15 minutes or more past 8:30 a.m. on 159 occasions without accounting for the tardiness with leave time.
“The Senate President considers the position of Chief of Staff as one that requires work both in and out of the office,” Mauk said in an emailed response to the newspaper. “In that capacity, my work day often begins well before 8 a.m. and goes late into the evening. For example, I finished a policy-related call last night at 11:56 p.m. In addition, the President’s senior staff policy allows flexibility on office hours, as long as the cumulative time worked meets the minimum requirements. Parking garage records, therefore, are not necessarily an accurate reflection of an employee’s office work hours.”
Records on leave time taken also raise questions of accountability.
From January 2013 to June 2014, McClelland accrued 303.25 hours of comp time and used 281.75 hours while Mauk accrued 286.75 hours and used 447 hours. (By comparison, the Republican caucus clerk, legal director, assistant chief of staff and finance director earned on average 300 hours of comp time for the same period and used an average of 205 hours.)
Strigari said Mauk didn’t exceed his leave balance, though he used more hours than he accrued.
The employee handbook gives Mauk sole discretion for granting comp time, including over his business partner. In October 2013, Mauk gave McClelland permission beginning on Aug. 26 to start work at 9 a.m. instead of the standard 8:30 a.m. for Senate employees. In February 2014, McClelland submitted a request to Mauk to take five days of leave.
Mauk said that while he has responsibility for managing all senate staff, “senior staff members are directly supervised and evaluated by the senate president (Faber). All administrative actions involving those employees are approved by him.”
Faber said Senate Republicans have drawn a bright line between state work and campaign work.
“I believe you need to be transparent and make sure, frankly, that there is no implication that anybody is doing work on state time,” said Faber. “So what we did was create a really clear policy that whenever these guys are doing work on campaign stuff, they’re either on comp time or leave time from the Senate. And because of that, we need to compensate them for that.”
He acknowledged that outside consultants used to do the work that Penmen Group is now doing but said the new arrangement saves the Senate Republican Campaign Committee money — cash that comes from political donors, not taxpayers.
Bledsoe said state workers may form side businesses or do outside work so long as they don’t use state resources. He said even using a state-paid parking space could be “very problematic.”
“I’d recommend against it. It doesn’t mean it’s a violation of law,” Bledsoe said. “I would, by nature, take a more cautious approach.”
Mayer said the system needs more openness and checks to protect taxpayers. “Since the days of Tammany Hall we’ve tried to make government more transparent and accountable by separating the political from the people’s work,” he said. “If you don’t do that, problems occur.”
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