By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
The Associated Press
Thursday, June 1, 2006; 5:30 AM
TOLEDO, Ohio -- A coin dealer and prominent GOP fundraiser who pleaded guilty to breaking federal campaign finance law has more legal troubles ahead _ a trial about the state's ill-fated $50 million investment in rare coins.
Tom Noe, once a powerful political figure who also raised money for Ohio Republicans, pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges that he illegally funneled about $45,000 to President Bush's re-election campaign.
The plea comes about three months before Noe, 51, is scheduled to go to trial in state court to face accusations he stole at least $1 million while managing an unusual investment in rare coins for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.
The investment scandal has been a major embarrassment for Ohio's ruling Republicans and given Democrats a better shot at winning state offices this year, including the governor's office, which has been under GOP control since 1991.
Prosecutors, who plan to recommend that Noe serve two to 2 1/2 years in prison, told U.S. District Judge David Katz that the upcoming trial was no reason to delay Noe's sentencing. Noe's attorneys argue that he needs access to lawyers before the trial, set for Aug. 29.
"The fact he has other state charges does not mean he should receive special treatment for better or for worse," said John Pearson, an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department's public integrity unit.
Katz said he'll decide after reviewing court officials' sentencing report.
Noe, who remains free on bond, said that he decided to plead guilty in the campaign finance case to "spare my family and many dear friends" the ordeal of a trial. He took the conviction in stride, chatting with family members on a bench outside the courtroom before the hearing began and making occasional calls on his cell phone.
Federal prosecutors have said the case was the largest campaign money-laundering scheme prosecuted under the 2002 campaign finance reform law, which set limits on donations.
Noe was charged with exceeding federal campaign contribution limits, using others to make the contributions and causing the Bush campaign to submit a false campaign-finance statement. Prosecutors said he gave $45,400 to 24 friends and associates who made the campaign donations in their own names, allowing him to skirt the $2,000 limit on individual contributions.
As a result, Bush's campaign committee unknowingly submitted a false campaign report to the Federal Election Commission, authorities have said.
Investigators have not said whether they believe Noe used money from the state coin fund for campaign contributions. Pearson said Wednesday that wouldn't be a factor in determining Noe's federal sentence, but he added prosecutors would ask for a lengthier sentence because the case may have caused a loss of confidence in the presidential election.
Prosecutors were still deciding whether to charge some of the people who donated the money. Investigations into Noe's coin investment, first reported in April 2005 by The Blade newspaper, led to Gov. Bob Taft's no contest plea and conviction in August to charges he accepted golf outings and other gifts that he didn't report.
Noe personally contributed more than $105,000 to Republicans including Bush and Taft during the 2004 campaign. The Bush-Cheney campaign donated $6,000 it received from Noe and his wife, Bernadette, to charity. The rest of the money donated at the Bush fundraiser in October 2003 remains with the Republican Party.
Democrats criticized Bush for keeping the contributions, with Ohio Democratic chairman Chris Redfern calling for the money to be donated to the state workers' compensation bureau.
Aaron McLear, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, which represents the inactive Bush campaign, said the group is waiting for a directive it expects from the court about what to do with the money.
Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo contributed to this report.