Ohio Scandals May Give Democrats a Lift
Sunday, November 27, 2005
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The scandal began as a curiosity. Tom Noe, a gregarious businessman and Republican Party leader in northwest Ohio, had been entrusted with $50 million in state money to invest in rare coins, with the idea of winning fat returns for the workers' compensation fund.
It seemed an oddity at most, but like a loose thread on a jacket, the more investigators pulled, the more the garment unraveled, revealing members of Ohio's Republican establishment who had been wined, dined and enriched by Noe.
Gov. Bob Taft (R), heir to the state's most famous political name, pleaded no contest in August to accepting secret freebies from Noe and others and was fined $4,000. Members of his staff admitted borrowing money from Noe or using his Florida Keys vacation home. Millions in state funds proved to be missing from Noe's accounts.
As Republicans raced to distance themselves from Noe, a federal grand jury in Toledo indicted him last month on charges that he illegally funneled $45,400 in campaign contributions to President Bush's reelection campaign. Prosecutors said he circumvented the $2,000 limit on individual contributions by getting 24 friends and associates to make the contributions, and reimbursing them.
Although Noe protests he is innocent, investigators are asking how far the growing scandal will go, and political consultants are measuring the potential fallout in a crucial Midwestern state controlled by the GOP. Historically, power has been split between the major parties in Ohio, but Republicans have won the past two presidential elections, and taken hold of both U.S. Senate seats and the state legislature in recent years. Republicans have occupied the governor's office since 1990.
The Republican brand in Ohio last week picked up another dent when six-term Rep. Robert W. Ney was identified as the recipient of favors -- including a golf trip to Scotland, meals and sports tickets -- from lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon in return for official actions. A lawyer for the central Ohio congressman denied the allegations.
Last year, the GOP caucus in the state legislature was buffeted by reports of improper fundraising and self-dealing by two consultants working for the Republican speaker of the state House.
With Ney under a cloud and Taft's approval rating diving to a historically low 15 percent in a Columbus Dispatch poll, Democrats hope to harness the scandals as part of a national campaign to paint their opponents as purveyors of arrogance and greed.
"My great fear politically is the Republicans will push him out of office," Rep. Chris Redfern, leader of the Democratic minority in the statehouse, said of Taft. "Keeping him in office is better for the Democrats than allowing him to leave under the cover of darkness."
Taft has pledged to finish his term and leave office in January 2007, as he is required to do by term limits. The governor's spokesman, Mark Rickel, dismissed the Democrats' criticisms of Taft.
"When the voters wanted solutions," Rickel said of Ohio Democrats, "they failed to offer solutions."
Ohio is the bellwether state that pushed President Bush over the top against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in the final hours of the November 2004 vote-counting. Often studied for signals of national importance, the state is suffering from a flat economy and damage to the president's standing by the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.