Before announcing his resignation from the Ohio Senate, Sen. Chris Widener pitched a plan for a consulting contract with a consortium of area universities that would pay him a fee of up to $150,000 plus up to $5,000 in reimbursable expenses.
The proposal, obtained by this newspaper, addresses one of the questions that has puzzled many in the Statehouse since Widener’s surprise announcement last week that he is resigning from the Ohio Senate as of Jan. 31, almost a full year before his term expires.
Widener, R-Springfield, has been the Senate’s number two in command and a member of the powerful state Controlling Board. He is the former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who last year was paid an $86,164 base salary plus at least one $5,000 stipend for being the vice chairman of the Senate Rules and Reference committee.
Widener on Dec. 7 met with Sean Creighton and Dusty Hall of the Southwestern Ohio Council on Higher Education to pitch his consulting services plan to SOCHE members, which include Wright State University, Central State University and other public colleges.
In a 12-page document dated Oct. 26, 2015, Widener proposed that his private architecture firm, WDC Group LLC, would identify military experience, education and training that could be translated into college credit for veterans.
Widener said in the proposal that within 30 days, he would solicit “input from trusted, knowledge sources” from within state agencies and universities to gather data.
‘I have no comment’
When approached on Wednesday in the Statehouse for comment about his pitch to SOCHE, Widener said: “I have no comment. I don’t care what your question is, I have no comment.”
Without speaking to Widener’s situation, Ohio Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe said “Ohio ethics laws preclude legislators from using their official influence to authorize or approve a contract in which they have an interest.”
Lawmakers are advised to steer clear of voting on, debating or otherwise participating in matters that involve entities with which they are seeking employment or contracts, he said.
It is not illegal to seek consulting work from public universities that have interests pending before the state — as long as the rules are followed, Bledsoe said.
Creighton said Widener indicated the consulting work is something he would like to do once he was out of public office. Widener did not say during that meeting if or when he would leave office, Creighton said.
Widener’s pitch to SOCHE called for the work to begin Jan. 2, 2016, and conclude Dec. 31.
Creighton said SOCHE is studying the merits of the proposal, examining what its members are already doing in the area of helping veterans earn college credit for military experience, and weighing whether to move forward with Widener or some other entity.
“It is a bit of a hot topic so we’re interested in how we can go more deeply into that area,” Creighton said.
In June 2013, Gov. John Kasich issued an executive order directing the Board of Regents to work with public university presidents to streamline the process for awarding college credit for military education by veterans and service members.
In July 2014, Widener was among a group of lawmakers, military leaders and higher education officials who held an event at Wright State University on the importance of transferring military training to college credit and industry credentials.
“The companies are going to provide the jobs,” Widener told the group. “Now our chore as community leaders throughout this region is to ensure that we have proper alignment and connecting all the points to make sure we have enough employees to apply for those jobs.
“We are going to solve this issue working together,” he said. “No one’s going to solve it working on their own. It’s too big of an issue.”
Nearly 900,000 veterans and 80,000 service members live in Ohio and 22,000 are attending college on federal veteran benefits in Ohio, according to the Kasich administration.
Widener said in his statement announcing his resignation that he would focus on his design and construction business as well as other issues.
“I plan to work for the quality and affordability of public education, giving students the skills they need to fill available jobs in the current Ohio market, working to insure that our veterans receive credit for their military training and education, and continuing to advocate for further investments in a healthy outcome for all Ohioans,” he said in his statement.
Staff writer Josh Sweigart contributed to this report.