Probe focuses on donation to GOP

Saturday, July 16, 2005

(Cleveland Plain Dealer)Election official says he was offered $10,000

Saturday, July 16, 2005
Julie Carr Smyth
Plain Dealer Bureau

Columbus - A member of the Franklin County election board said Friday that prosecutors are investigating whether a GOP political consultant tried to bribe the board's director to buy voting equipment made by his client, Diebold Inc.

The director, Matthew Damschroder, has told prosecutors that the consultant, Pat Gallina, came to his office in early 2004, offering him $10,000.

"Pat Gallina came into my office at the Board of Elections and said, 'I'm here to give you $10,000. Who should I direct it to?' " Damschroder recalled. "I said, 'Certainly not to me. But I'm sure the Franklin County Republican Party would appreciate a voluntary donation. That was my first mistake."

The law prohibits Damschroder from accepting political contributions on county property. He said he took the check home and mailed it to the party, where he had just completed a stint as executive director.

Damschroder said Franklin County was in the process of selecting a new electronic voter registration system and that Diebold was not chosen.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien would not comment on his investigation.

Elections board member Michael Colley, a Republican, said the four-member board has met twice in executive session to discuss the meeting between Damschroder and Gallina, a former aide to Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk.

"The crux of the issue is whether there was an attempt to bribe an official to influence the board in terms of voting-machine contractors," Colley said.

Gallina did not return calls, directly or through business associates, seeking comment.

Damschroder told prosecutor O'Brien of Gallina's visit after his testimony was sought in a civil suit filed by one of Diebold's competitors, Election Systems and Software.

ES&S charges in that suit that Secretary of State Ken Blackwell improperly favored Diebold in selecting electronic voting machines for use statewide. Political consultant Norman Cummings, a Blackwell campaign adviser, is scheduled to give a deposition shortly in that case.

Damschroder said Cummings' name came up in his office conversation with Gallina, who said he had met Cummings recently in the Washington, D.C., area. Gallina told him that he and Cummings agreed on the cut-rate price Diebold would charge the state for its machines, and that Gallina promised in return to give $50,000 to "Blackwell interests."

Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Blackwell, called the claim "absolutely ridiculous," and that Cummings has not negotiated any part of the state's voting machine contracts.

During the same month that Gallina gave $10,000 to the Franklin County GOP, he gave another $10,000 to Blackwell's anti-tax group, Citizens for Tax Repeal, which was formed to repeal a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike approved in 2003 by the Ohio Legislature.

The check Gallina wrote to the group came through Celebrezze & Associates Inc., a company Gallina formed with former Ohio Attorney General Tony Celebrezze, a Democrat, in 2002. Celebrezze died in July 2002. The check to the Franklin County GOP was written from the account of ACG Group LLC, another joint venture of Gallina and Celebrezze.

A Diebold spokesman said Friday that the company had no involvement in either contribution.

Diebold executives had ceased contributing directly to political campaigns in October 2003, after the company president sparked an uproar by saying he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes" to secure President Bush's re-election.

Spokesman Mike Jacobsen said the firm pays Gallina - through Celebrezze & Associates - to work as a liaison on state and county government contracts.

"It's a separate company," he said. "Just because we contract with a lobbyist and they make a contribution doesn't mean, in any way, that we use them as some sort of political back door to curry political favor."

LoParo said his boss oversaw a selection process that was fair, thorough and open, and that Diebold was not shown any favoritism.

A vendor had already been picked in January 2004, when Gallina wrote his check to the anti-tax group, LoParo said, disproving any notion that it might have bought the company special treatment.

"I don't know what special deal has ever been gotten from our office," LoParo said. "We got them to agree to the lowest prices in the nation, then we forced them to take another $200 off their price after that."

He noted that Gallina has supported Blackwell politically since 1998, when he was state treasurer.

Gallina was the top assistant to Lottery Director Gerald Patronite in 1978, when the pair were charged with taking favors from firms and individuals seeking business with the lottery commission. The two were later cleared.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

jsmyth@plaind.com, 1-800-228-8272

 

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