Wright State’s big-money contract under scrutiny by state regulators

State’s reform efforts with universities have had little impact.Two state regulators continue to probe Wright State.

It didn’t even stop the contract that prompted lawmakers to seek reform of the system in the first place.

The University of Akron continues to pay a Columbus-based lobbying firm $270,000 a year, even after state legislators lambasted the contract while passing a law in 2011 saying contracts that exceed $50,000 must get prior approval from the state Controlling Board.

That $50,000 annual threshold may now be an issue with Wright State University, which paid Ron Wine Consulting Group through an affiliate of the university nearly $2 million since 2009 to land state and federal funds for WSU.

Wine did not register as a lobbyist and the university did not seek Controlling Board approval — something both the Legislative Inspector General and Attorney General are now investigating.

“When I read the (Dayton Daily News) story, it appeared that this individual, Mr. Wine, was lobbying,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Thursday. “But quite frankly we don’t want to make a judgment until we’ve done the investigation.”

The Daily News published an investigation last week revealing how much money has been paid to Wine’s firm; that the university’s current contract allows Wine to bill up to $1 million a year; and that the university couldn’t find contracts and other records.

Wright State President David Hopkins has said that Wine does not lobby for the university. His current contract, signed in May, prohibits him from lobbying. University officials say they can’t find a contract for 2014, a year when he billed the university nearly $1 million.

‘Pure’ lobbying

The examples involving Wright State and the University of Akron call into question the state’s ability to monitor the types of contracts universities have with consultants and lobbyists and even raise questions about what constitutes lobbying.

The University of Akron contract that so irked legislators was with a company called Sean Dunn & Associates, which hired the former university board of trustees chairman, Alex Arshinkoff, who is also chairman of the Summit County Republican Party.

When the contract was signed, Arshinkoff made clear in an interview with the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that his job involved lobbying.

“It’s not a fix,” he said of his close ties to Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “It wouldn’t be lobbying if you knew when you sat down that you had four aces and a royal straight flush. I can guarantee you. I’ve known John Kasich a long time and I don’t know of a person who can say they could deliver John Kasich.”

The university did not seek Controlling Board approval because it didn’t feel it was needed, said Matt Akers, the school’s government relations director and assistant director of the Bliss Institute.

“Sean Dunn & Associates provides much more than pure lobbying for the university,” Akers said. “Overall government strategy, government relations counsel, all of that. So that was my understanding of that $50,000 minimum was based on those that only did lobbying for a state institution.”

The Ohio Lobbying Handbook and a legislative analysis of the requirement doesn’t say anything about “pure” lobbying work.

Since the requirement went into place in September 2011, no lobbying contracts for public universities have received approval from the Controlling Board, which is a seven-member bipartisan fiscal oversight board.

‘Betrayal of the public trust’

Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield, who is a member of the Controlling Board and was a prime mover behind the reform law that grew out of the University of Akron contract, did not respond to written questions about that contract or about university lobbyists in general.

But Widener, who has worked with Wine on matters involving Wright State, said in an email that Wine’s contract is not with Wright State so the assumption that it requires Controlling Board approval is “inaccurate.”

Wine’s current consulting services agreement, which allows him to bill up to $84,000 a month, is with Wright State Applied Research Corp., a non-profit contracting administration agency that supports the school’s research institute and is managed by university employees. The Wright State Research Institute, founded in 2007 as an economic development arm of the university, aims to boost government and industry-sponsored research done in the Dayton area.

Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University and head of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said universities that evade disclosure laws should be “severely sanctioned.”

“It seems to me that particularly when there are individuals who are politically influential — for that activity to be carried on in a non-transparent way is betrayal of the public trust,” Vedder said. “The legal restrictions that are in place are appropriate. It may not be strong enough, but they’re appropriate.”

Army of lobbyists

Public universities in Ohio employ a small army of lobbyists to do their bidding before local, state and federal officials for everything from adding a graduate program to landing public money to building new facilities. Ohio’s 38 state-supported community colleges and universities collectively enroll nearly 500,000 students, employ more than 100,000 workers and maintain more than 2,500 buildings.

Every higher education institution is angling for state money. The state spends $2.5 billion a year on higher education, plus another $504 million that is doled out for capital projects.

All told, there are 37 registered lobbyists at 15 public universities — 70 percent are university in-house staff, while the rest are independent contractors. Ohio’s four-year public universities collectively pay their lobbyists more than $3.5 million a year, according to public records.

A review of those records shows the extent to which universities invest in people who argue their interests in Columbus. For example:

  • Wright State University: Former state lawmaker and university vice president Robert Hickey, who makes $150,733-a-year, is in charge of government relations. WSU pays former state senator Jeff Jacobson $60,000 a year and previously paid Lori Kershner $90,000 a year for lobbying services, though their contracts straddle two calendar years. Former state lawmaker and Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine has had three contracts this year with Wright State. A lobbying contract was signed in September, made retroactive to April, and allows the university to call on him as-needed and pay him up to $25,000. The university also has a consulting agreement that paid DeWine $90,000, split equally in 2014 and 2015. And DeWine has billed the university $79,000 since May under a separate, overlapping agreement with the Wright State Applied Research Corp. that allows him to bill $228,000 next year with the goal of obtaining federal and state funding. That contract prohibits lobbying.
  • Ohio State University: The eight OSU lobbyists registered with the state are all in-house staff that were paid a combined $1.9 million in 2014. OSU’s lobbying team includes people with other duties, such as general counsel Chris Culley and political scientist Herb Asher.
  • Miami University: State and local lobbying is done by Randi Thomas, the university’s director of institutional relations, who made $132,398 last year. A private firm is paid $42,000 a year to handle federal lobbying duties.
  • University of Cincinnati: Two-Columbus based university employees — Margaret Rolf and Mike Carroll — lobby state officials while Greg Vehr, a university vice president, handles local lobbying as well as marketing and communications. The trio were paid $330,000 combined in 2011, the most recent year that was published on public websites. Lewis-Burk Associates, a federal consulting firm, has a $179,106 annual contract with UC.
  • Sinclair Community College: The school pays $42,000 a year to Duane Morris Government Strategies for state lobbying services and has a $30,000-a-year contract with Kevin DeWine for strategic advising.
  • Clark State Community College: Clark State has two contracts with Sean P. Dunn & Associates for government affairs and lobbying services. The contracts each pay $7,000 a month and run consecutively from January 2015 through June 2016.

WSU board president responds

Numerous attempts to contact Ron Wine for comment have been unsuccessful.

At the Wright State Board of Trustees meeting Friday, several board members who were asked about the university’s contract with Wine referred questions to Michael Bridges, the board’s chairman.

Bridges said the work was contracted and paid through the Wright State Applied Research Corporation, which has its own board. He also said the trustees “rely on the university to have the contracts that work with various agencies, entities and consultants.”

But, he added: “It is definitely something we’re looking into and getting more information on and discussing that with university leadership to make sure we know what’s going on.”

Bridges said he welcomes the AG’s office and OLIG inquiries.

“Clearly we’re working with taxpayer money, with my money, and we want to use it wisely and efficiently,” he said.

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