The Columbus Dispatch

Governor fined $4,000 for ethics violations, ordered to issue apology

Friday, August 19, 2005
NEWS   01A

By Mark Niquette, Alan Johnson and Randy Ludlow

Illustration: Photo

He was polite, somber and apologetic.

But after just 12 minutes in a packed Franklin County courtroom yesterday, Bob Taft was a governor with a criminal record.

Taft quietly accepted his punishment -- $4,000 in fines, $76 in court costs and a public apology -- for knowingly failing to report free golf and other favors.

Critics said Taft, who pleaded "no contest'' and was found guilty of four misdemeanor charges, failed to adequately explain how the ethical lapses occurred in what they call a "pay-to-play'' culture in state government.

"Today is a sad day in Ohio's history and for a historical Ohio family,'' said Senate Democratic Leader C.J. Prentiss, of Cleveland.

Taft, the first sitting Ohio governor to be convicted of a crime, entered the court holding hands with his wife, Hope.

Before sentencing, he apologized, saying he was "very disappointed in myself.'' But Taft was adamant when he later told reporters that he will not resign.

"I will continue to do the job of governor that I was elected to do. . . . There's a lot more that I want to get done for the people of the state of Ohio.''

Taft was in court for breaking state ethics law by failing to report on his annual financial-disclosure forms 52 golf outings, meals, hockey tickets and other gifts worth almost $6,000 since 1998. By law, all gifts of $75 or more must be reported.

The governor described most events as recreational outings with friends on weekends.

In addition to the fine, Municipal Court Judge Mark S. Froehlich ordered Taft to distribute "a meaningful apology'' within a week to all media outlets and state employees.

"From the shores of Lake Erie to the banks of the Ohio River, I want them to know that you are sorry for what you have done,'' the judge told Taft.

The governor could have received six months in jail on each count. Froehlich noted that jail, while a possibly popular sentence, wasn't warranted.

William Meeks, Taft's attorney, stressed that Taft had cooperated fully with the Ohio Ethics Commission and voluntarily triggered the investigation. Meeks said Taft had "an unblemished'' ethical record in 30 years as a public official.

Even so, the judge said the fact he wasn't sending the governor to jail "should not in any way distract from the seriousness'' of the charges.

"The message is simple and clear: No one is above the law in the state of Ohio,'' he said. "Even the governor can be charged and convicted of a criminal offense.''

Taft stood mostly stoically -- flinching and blinking several times -- with his hands clasped behind his back as he listened intently to Froehlich.

More than a dozen TV and still cameras and twice as many reporters jammed Courtroom 4C.

Standing next to Meeks, the governor responded to questions from the judge with answers of "Yes I do, sir'' and "Yes I do, your honor.''

"As governor, I have made it clear that I expect all state workers to comply and follow both the spirit and the letter of Ohio's ethics laws, and I have demanded no less of myself,'' Taft said. "In this instance, I have personally failed to live up to those high expectations and to the expectations of the people of Ohio.''

Taft briefly choked up at a news conference later.

"I just want to say that there are no words to express the deep remorse that I feel over the embarrassment . . . the deep remorse that I feel over the embarrassment I have caused for my administration and for the people of the state of Ohio,'' he said.

Democrats were skeptical of Taft's sincerity.

"If he were truly sorry, he would have admitted what he did wrong and pleaded guilty,'' said Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown-area Democrat and vocal critic of the Taft administration. Dann has sued Taft over records related to the case.

Even though Taft stressed that he is taking full responsibility, critics said there are nagging inconsistencies:

* Taft said he initiated the inquiry that culminated in his ethics conviction by self-reporting mistakes to the Ohio Ethics Commission after reading about the investigation of Maumee coin dealer Thomas W. Noe.

"When I started to read reports in the newspapers about the Noe investigation and the Noe gifts,'' Taft said, "I remembered that I played golf with Tom Noe so I began to make an inquiry. Frankly, I was very surprised with what I found.

"I initiated this process. I notified the ethics commission there were errors and omissions.''

But in fact, the governor did not self-report until after Inspector General Thomas P. Charles sent him a letter on May 23 seeking thousands of records related to allegations that "certain members of the governor's staff may have received lodging accommodations and other items'' from Noe.

Taft notified the commission of his omissions nearly three weeks later, on June 14.

* The governor said he only recently became aware of a 2001 Ethics Commission ruling that free golf outings are a thing of value that must be reimbursed or reported by public officials.

"I didn't become aware of that, unfortunately, until earlier this summer,'' Taft said.

However, records obtained by The Dispatch from Taft's office included numerous references over several years to the commission's golf opinion, including several ethics-training sessions attended by Taft.

One of the training graphics specifically focused on golf ethics. Further, free golf was among other serious ethics issues in four cases in which state officials were forced out of office -- sometimes at Taft's urging.

The cases involved Randall A. Fischer, former director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission; ex-Consumers' Counsel Robert S. Tongren; Richard P. Frenette, manager of the state fair; and Gino Zomparelli, director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission.

Asked whether Taft should have known earlier about the 2001 opinion, David E. Freel, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said he didn't know whether it was "intellectualized and understood by everyone.''

"I think the fact that you had a governor in a courtroom admitting his violation of the standard of law is the most important thing,'' Freel said.

The Ethics Commission's 14-page investigative report, released yesterday, noted there is evidence Taft was aware of his financial-disclosure obligations because he attended, and periodically spoke at, seminars on ethics requirements.

Taft said he has made full reimbursement to those who paid for golf outings or other gifts. Spokesman Mark Rickel said the money came from Taft's own pocket.

The governor also denied the golf outings he accepted led to any benefits for his hosts. "There is no pay-to-play system. There is no connection between golf or contributions and state contracts in our administration,'' he said.

The commission report seemed to back up Taft's assertion, concluding there was "no factual evidence'' that any of the nondisclosed golf or gifts were "compensation for his duties or given in return for any action or decision.''

Taft is the third person charged in a wide-ranging state and federal investigation in the wake of a rare-coin investment for the Ohio Bureau of Worker's Compensation managed by Noe, a prominent Republican donor.

Brian K. Hicks, Taft's former chief of staff, and Hicks' executive secretary, Cherie N. Carroll, were found guilty last month in connection with accepting gifts from Noe. They were fined $1,000 each.

Noe has been accused of stealing nearly $4 million from the $50 million investment for personal use, and his attorneys have acknowledged a shortfall of up to $13 million.

Multiple state and federal agencies are investigating, and three special grand juries have been seated.

Apparently working from appointment calendars provided by Taft, commission investigators asked for details for dozens of Taft dinners and other engagements.

In most cases, the governor paid for the events or they fell below the $75 reporting threshold, with Taft's attorneys providing copies of canceled checks.

The governor, for example, twice reimbursed The Dispatch $130 for Columbus Blue Jackets hockey tickets in 2000 and 2001. He also repaid The Plain Dealer, of Cleveland, a total of $712 for Browns and Indians tickets on five occasions.

Dispatch reporter Catherine Candisky contributed to this report.

Gov. Bob Taft heads for his wife, Hope, and the exit after pleading "no contest'' to violations of state ethics law.
Gov. Bob Taft gets a hug from his wife, Hope, as they leave court in Columbus.

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