Another Republican Pol With Ethics Problems

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft’s political opponents have charged him with stonewalling, seeking scapegoats, and failing to take responsibility for what has transpired under his watch.

With Taft facing possible criminal charges for violating the state’s ethics law, his critics question whether the lame-duck governor will hold himself to the same standard he has set for his cabinet members and top aides — or if he will blame missteps on his underlings.

Taft failed to report up to 60 golf outings on his state-mandated financial disclosure forms. After a two-month investigation, the Ohio Ethics Commission last week finished its probe and was in the process of forwarding its findings to prosecutors.

Taft’s spokesman, Orest Holubec, said the governor’s secretary, Jean Booze, compiles his financial disclosure statements. But Taft signs the reports and is ultimately responsible. State law requires officeholders to list each source of gifts over $75.

State Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown-area Democrat, said the Republican governor makes a practice of blaming others when bad things happen on the 30th floor of the Riffe Tower in Columbus, where Taft works. “The buck apparently doesn’t stop on the 30th floor, or if it does, it’s not in the corner office,” Dann said.

Taft’s administration is immersed in a scandal that began more than four months ago when the Toledo Blade reported on the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation’s $50 million investment with Tom Noe, a rare-coin dealer and Republican fund-raiser. In late May, Noe’s attorneys acknowledged that up to $13 million was missing from the fund, and last month, Attorney General Jim Petro accused the coin dealer of stealing millions of dollars from the state. A federal investigation is under way to determine if Noe laundered money into President Bush’s re-election campaign.

The scandal has led to investigations, a resignation from within the administration, and the criminal conviction of Taft’s former chief of staff.

“Governor Taft has presided over a Republican culture of corruption in Columbus that includes pay-to-play schemes with lobbyists and workers’ compensation funds being funneled to the President’s re-election campaign,” said Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

Other critics say a pattern of the governor letting others take the blame for problems has emerged:

After first defending Noe, Taft said in late May that he was “outraged” by what had transpired with the coin funds Noe had managed.

The governor originally stood by the bureau’s former administrator, James Conrad, before calling for his resignation after the revelations of the missing millions.

Taft demoted his top business aide, Jim Samuel, saying his underling had failed to inform him last year of $215 million in bureau investment losses with MDL Capital Management, which managed an offshore hedge fund for the agency.

David Mark, the editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections, a nonpartisan magazine, called Taft’s predicament “very rare and very serious” and said he would not be surprised if the governor “ended up resigning at some point.” The demotions, resignations, and change of attitude about former allies and aides seem designed to keep the governor “at arms length after the fact,” Mark said.

“It’s a reflection of his judgment that he would hire these people or surround himself with them in the first place,” he said.

Holubec said the governor took responsibility for “what has happened at the bureau.”

“He has set a course to fix the problems at the bureau. He has suggested a method to separate the investment function from the insurance function. He set up the management review team, which is currently going through all of the investments,” Holubec said.

Mark Weaver, a GOP strategist, said the governor has been accountable for his actions.

“By the fact that he has reported himself to the Ethics Commission for these oversights, he is taking responsibility,” Weaver said. “He did not have to do that. He could have waited for someone else to raise the issue.”

Taft repeatedly has said he initiated the probe by the Ethics Commission, but his office did not publicly acknowledge the problems with the governor’s disclosure statements until the Blade inquired about whether Taft needed to file an addendum to his ethics statements.

The governor has refused to say if he disclosed the golf outings to the commission because of the probe of Noe, with whom he had golfed at Toledo’s exclusive Inverness Club in 2001.

Weaver said the best course of action for Taft is to continue governing the state while the Ethics Commission process plays out.