Ohio watchdog releases investment scandal report

GAVEL-OHIO

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Ohio’s watchdog released his much-anticipated investigative report Thursday on the investment scandal that engulfed the state in 2005, concluding the bureau where it started has become significantly more professional and accountable.

Inspector General Randall Meyer made no new findings of wrongdoing in what’s been dubbed Coingate, a scandal that resulted in 19 convictions reaching up to then-Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

Meyer instead used the 1,210-page report to detail the status of 75 reforms at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation that were recommended through reviews at the time by the governor’s office, state auditor and Legislature.

“Today, OBWC is unquestionably a much more professional and accountable organization than it was in 2005,” the report concluded.

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio, which threatened a lawsuit in 2013 forcing the report’s release, said Thursday’s document is too little too late.

“Any of us could have taken news reports, basically, and figured out everything that’s in this investigation. So there’s no reason for it to be so late,” she said. “The fact certain individuals’ records have been expunged just highlights how ludicrously late this is.”

With statewide elections just six months away, release of the report could cause the scandal to re-emerge as a campaign issue in a key battleground state. What Meyer described as “compilation of relevant criminal matters, legislative reforms, and the recommended and implemented changes,” however, gives Democrats seeking to oust Ohio’s all-Republican establishment few new developments to discuss.

The scandal broke open with a newspaper report of a dubious $50 million investment by the bureau into a rare-coin fund run by generous Republican fundraiser Tom Noe, of Toledo. Two coins worth $300,000 were reported lost, and other investments were missing or unaccounted for.

Influence-peddling by the bureau’s powerful investment and finance chiefs was eventually uncovered and involved aides and lobbyists accepting sports tickets, condo stays, cash and other perks.

Taft was convicted for omitting golf games with Noe from required ethics statements.

Meyer’s predecessor, Tom Charles, who played a visible role in investigating the scandal, left office in 2010 to become Gov. John Kasich’s public safety director without ever issuing the report. He had said the legally required report was coming before leaving office and has not publicly explained the delay.

Meyer, appointed by Kasich in 2011, initially said he saw no need to complete the report of such a heavily investigated and publicized scandal that was years old.

But after the state attorney general recommended otherwise, Meyer announced in February 2012 that he would proceed with it – but not make it a priority.

Common Cause Ohio’s legal threat came after another year passed without it being issued, but it wasn’t until a lawsuit was recently filed by The Blade of Toledo, which first reported the coin investments, that the pace quickened.

On Thursday, Meyer defended the process, which at times involved half his 18-member staff doing legal research and interviews. He never interviewed Noe, then-Bureau Administrator Jim Conrad or others as part of his review.

“My focus has been the active investigations and I have no bones about telling anybody that,” Meyer said.

The campaign of Democrat Ed FitzGerald, who seeks to unseat Kasich this fall, suggested Meyer made a conscious decision to soft-peddle his findings to protect Kasich and other Republicans.

“This is not the first time Kasich’s IG has turned a blind eye to potentially damaging political investigations,” FitzGerald’s campaign said in an email. “IG Meyer has been critiqued by previous IGs for the few investigations he’s opened during his tenure, as well as for his decision to speak at a Republican fundraiser and to donate to the Kasich-Taylor re-election campaign.”

Meyer said that’s not the case.

“It’s not right or left, it’s right or wrong with this office,” he said.

In the November 2006 election that followed Coingate, Ohio Democrats won four of five statewide offices, including governor. However, they lost their power four years later, as Republicans regained all five statewide offices and both chambers of the state Legislature.

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