Toledo Blade - Ex-Taft aides charged in ethics case

Saturday, July 30, 2005

(Toledo Blade)Ex-Taft aides are charged in ethics case Hicks and Carroll work out plea deal By CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK and JOSHUA BOAK BLADE STAFF WRITERS COLUMBUS — Living the high life off coin dealer Tom Noe brought state ethics violation charges yesterday against Gov. Bob Taft’s former top aides — Brian Hicks and Cherie Carroll. The two are expected in Franklin County Municipal Court at 11 a.m. today to answer the charges. Prosecutors were trying to meet a two-year statute of limitations deadline to bring the charges by today. Mr. Hicks and Ms. Carroll worked out a deal this week to plead guilty to first-degree misdemeanors, a source close to the investigation told The Blade. Prosecutors are not recommending a sentence, but are leaving that to the discretion of Columbus Municipal Court Judge Scott Vanderkarr. The maximum sentence for a first-degree misdemeanor is a $1,000 fine and 180 days in jail. The complaints filed yesterday evening were brought with the help of Mr. Noe and his wife, Bernadette, who met with investigators last Friday and provided information. They are under intense scrutiny in a $50 million rare-coin scandal that has enveloped state government and threatened the legacy and standing of Mr. Taft and the power of the state’s Republican Party. Mr. Hicks, who served as Mr. Taft’s chief of staff from 1999 to 2003, is accused of knowingly filing a false financial disclosure statement because he did not list at least one below-market rate rental of Mr. Noe’s Florida vacation home. He told The Blade for an earlier article that he stayed in 2002 for five days for about $300 to $500 a week, and again in 2003 for an amount he could not remember. Cherie Carroll, who was Mr. Hicks’ executive assistant in the governor’s office, is charged with accepting free meals from Mr. Noe, who could have exerted “improper influence upon her.” Mr. Hicks left his job July 31, 2003, and started a lobbying firm, where Ms. Carroll is currently employed. After leaving the governor’s office, Mr. Hicks consulted for the Republican Governors’ Association, helping to raise millions of dollars for the political organization. Mr. Hicks’ customer list has also included the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. At the heart of the charges is Mr. Noe’s former status as a state vendor as the manager of the $50 million state coin fund. He regularly treated groups of lobbyists and government aides to free meals at Morton’s steakhouse in downtown Columbus as part of what became unofficially known as the “Noe Supper Club.” The connected coin dealer was a frequent and generous political contributor to Republican candidates and is the former chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party. Mr. Noe lobbied in e-mails to the governor’s office to be invited to the White House with the 2002 Ohio State University football championship team. He played golf with Mr. Taft, who himself is under investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission for not disclosing free rounds, and had the ear of lobbyists and governor’s aides, whom he wined and dined and offered his vacation property to, according to sources and records. The Blade first reported on the vacation rentals and the supper club largess from Mr. Noe, which resulted in the charges brought last night. The ethics complaints were signed by Inspector General Tom Charles; David Freel, who is executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, and a high ranking officer with Ohio State Highway Patrol. “They are criminal complaints based upon the evidence and are the charges that are appropriate,” said Columbus Prosecutor Richard C. Pfeiffer, whose office is technically charged with prosecuting state ethics violations. “Because this whole thing seems to be connected, we agreed to work together. … It seems to all be coming out of the state level, and you’re never sure what is connected to what. In the public’s mind, it’s all coming out of the state level.” Reached last night, Mr. Hicks’ attorney Terry Sherman would not comment. Mr. Hicks and Ms. Carroll did not return calls. The two criminal charges are the first filed against state officials with connections to Mr. Noe and the rare-coin scandal. As the Noe scandal widened — including another investigation into campaign contributions to the Bush-Cheney campaign last year — a task force was formed of Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, and federal prosecutors Greg White of the Northern District and Greg Lockhart of the Southern District to investigate the rare-coin scandal dubbed “Coingate.” The bureau was considering a third $25 million infusion into Mr. Noe’s rare-coin investment until The Blade began writing about the funds in early April. Mr. Taft, before the charges were officially filed yesterday, said he would reserve comment. “We’ll wait and comment when something happens there in the case,” he said at a brief press conference in Washington Court House, Ohio. Mark Rickel, spokesman for Mr. Taft, said after the charges: “If it’s determined that Brian and Cherie failed to comply with state ethics laws, the governor would be disappointed.” On the investigation into his free rounds of golf, Mr. Taft said: “Until the process is farther along or is completed, I simply am not in a position to comment on the inquiries that they initiated at my request.” Contact Christopher Kirkpatrick or 419-724-6077.


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