Columbus Dispatch - GOP reeling over Noe, Pryce says

Friday, August 5, 2005

(Columbus Dispatch)

GOP reeling over Noe, Pryce says
Scandal’s fallout could cost party dearly in next election, lawmaker says Friday, August 05, 2005 Randy Ludlow and Darrel Rowland THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH Even as a Republican state senator joined his Democratic colleagues to support new anti-corruption laws that could drop the hammer on pay-toplay politics in Ohio, a leading GOP congresswoman called the state’s political environment the most "dire" she’s ever seen for the party. The ongoing ethics-and-investments scandal in state government has gotten so big, even GOP officeholders not involved are in danger of losing office, said an unusually blunt U.S. Rep. Deborah Pryce in a meeting with The Dispatch editorial board. "The political situation for Republicans both in Washington and especially Ohio is just dreadful," she said. "In my short political life I’ve never seen it so dire." The Upper Arlington Republican said the unexpectedly close race in Ohio’s 2 nd Congressional District this week — a Democratic challenger came within 4 percentage points of winning the heavily GOP area — is a harbinger of the difficulty Republicans at all levels will face at the polls. "It’s gonna get a lot worse," she said. "It’s not just about golf outings." Gov. Bob Taft is under investigation because he did not disclose about 60 golf outings and other favors. His former chief of staff, Brian K. Hicks, was convicted last Friday of an ethics charge and fined $1,000 for not reporting a pair of below-market-rate stays at the Florida home of prominent GOP supporter Thomas W. Noe. Investigations continue into the possible loss of some $300 million invested by the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, including two rare- coin funds set up for Noe. The Maumee coin dealer also is the target of a federal investigation into making possibly illegal contributions to President Bush’s 2004 campaign. Pryce noted the current push to bring former Rep. John R. Kasich, of Westerville, into the 2006 governor’s race, and said others are wondering about the possible candidacy of ex-Rep. Rob Portman, of Cincinnati, whose appointment earlier this year by President Bush to U.S. trade representative created the congressional vacancy. Meanwhile, an unlikely alliance of state senators — a Taftbashing Democrat and a rightleaning Republican — see tougher ethics laws as a step toward avoiding a repeat of the scandal. Sens. Marc Dann and Timothy J. Grendell are calling for an Ohio version of the federal Hobbs Act that could charge public officials with extortion if they swap government business for perks or campaign cash. "In order to make Ohio a better place, we need to set politics aside, review the problems and implement a solution," Grendell said. A pair of ethics-reform bills were introduced yesterday by Dann and Grendell. Dann, a Youngstown-area Democrat, and Grendell, a Chesterland Republican running for attorney general, were joined by the 10 other Senate Democrats as co-sponsors. "With all the scandals happening in Ohio, it is crystal clear we have to change the way things are done here," Dann said. The senators propose that extortion by a public official be a third-degree felony carrying one to five years in prison. The companion bill would: • Prohibit an award of state contracts or investments to members of state boards and commissions and any businesses they own. Noe served on the Ohio Board of Regents and Ohio Turnpike Commission before the scandal broke. • Forbid the appointment of a former governor’s office employee to a state board until three years have lapsed. Taft named Hicks an Ohio State University trustee and installed him on the state water-development authority board when he left the state payroll two years ago. • Disallow anyone convicted of an ethics violation from serving on a state board. A conviction also would carry a five-year prohibition against lobbying. • Require the attorney general to review state contracts involving more than $1 million and post them on the Internet for public inspection. • Expand the requirement for state elected officials and certain state employees to file financial disclosure statements for three years after leaving office, instead of the current two. Citing Hicks’ role as an OSU trustee, Dann said those who abuse their offices and the public trust should not be afforded a second chance to serve: "We need to take the bad apples and not just move them around in the barrel, but remove them from the barrel." Senate President Bill M. Harris, R-Ashland, and House Speaker Jon A. Husted, R-Kettering, want to assess the fallout of ongoing investigations before moving on legislation. Harris is willing to study proposals, but, a spokesman said, "We need to see the complete picture before acting." "It is highly likely some type of ethics-reform bill will emerge from the legislature," a Husted spokeswoman said. House Minority Leader Chris Redfern, a Democrat from Catawba Island, said he will introduce legislation mirroring the Dann-Grendell bills. "It’s obvious that state government needs more safeguards to prevent greedy insiders from using state government as their personal ATM machine," he said. In another development yesterday, Noe’s attorneys filed a legal brief arguing that a court should reject Attorney General Jim Petro’s request to impose more restrictions on Noe’s sale of personal assets. The filing, before Judge David E. Cain, of Franklin County Common Pleas Court, also disputes Petro’s allegations that Noe stole nearly $4 million from the bureau. "In the manner of a classic propagandist, the attorney general does not allow the facts — or a basic understanding of finance — to get in the way of his efforts to smear Mr. Noe at every turn," Noe’s attorneys wrote. Petro spokeswoman Kim Norris said Petro remains concerned that Noe might have used state money to buy the homes, cars, boats and other items he has been selling in recent weeks — and that denials of wrongdoing ring hollow. "Who would believe anything Mr. Noe would say at this point?" Norris asked. Meanwhile, another grand jury is convening in Cleveland to investigate any other bureau investment issues, including a fund managed by MDL Capital Management of Pittsburgh that lost $215 million last year. Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien will supervise all state ethics investigations with Columbus City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. Dispatch reporter Mark Niquette contributed to this story.


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