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Ohio Governor Found Guilty of Ethics Violations

Times Staff Writer

Ohio Gov. Robert A. Taft pleaded no contest Thursday to charges that he violated state ethics laws by failing to report golf outings and other gifts, the latest development in a wide-ranging political scandal triggered by a $50-million investment of public money in rare coins.

Taft, a second-term Republican, entered his plea in Columbus less than 24 hours after he was charged with failing to report more than 50 gifts worth about $6,000. In addition to the rounds of golf, they included meals and hockey tickets, prosecutors said. Two golf outings were paid for by coin dealer Thomas Noe, a Republican Party fundraiser behind the unusual coin investment.

Franklin County Municipal Judge Mark S. Froehlich found Taft guilty, fined him $4,000 -- $1,000 for each of the four misdemeanor charges -- and demanded an apology to the public.

“From the shores of Lake Erie to the banks of the Ohio River, I want them to know that you are sorry for what you have done,” the judge said.

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The governor, the 63-year-old great-grandson of President William Howard Taft and the face of a century-old political dynasty in the Midwest, complied in a lengthy statement read in a quavering voice.

“Words are not adequate to express the remorse that I feel personally for the embarrassment that I have caused to my administration and to this great state,” Taft said at a news conference. “I want to offer my sincere and heartfelt apology to my family, friends, staff members and all those who have supported me. Most importantly, I want to apologize to the citizens of Ohio.”

Still, Taft downplayed his transgressions, explaining that they resulted from his office’s poor record-keeping and an inadequate system “to monitor the value of golf outings and other social events.”

“While I can assure the public that my self-reported mistakes did not constitute a purposeful violation of law, I nevertheless failed to adhere to the disclosure requirements of Ohio’s ethics laws,” he said.

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The governor will not face jail time.

In May, officials learned that $13 million was missing from the state investment fund managed by Noe, a well-connected figure in the state Republican Party and a regional chairman of President Bush’s reelection campaign.

Ohio Atty. Gen. Jim Petro, a Republican, has alleged that Noe might have stolen $4 million from the $55.4-million fund, which was designed as an investment for the state’s Workers’ Compensation Bureau.

The revelations sparked investigations into what critics called Ohio’s “pay-to-play” political system, as well as Taft’s financial disclosures.

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Taft, elected in 1998 and reelected in 2002, is barred from seeking another term. His involvement in the investment scandal, though seemingly peripheral, sparked calls for him to resign before his term ends next year.

Amid the political turmoil and Ohio’s troubled economy, one survey this summer found that 17% of residents approved of the job Taft was doing -- making him the least popular governor in the nation. No other governor in the survey had an approval rating below 30%.

State Sen. Mark Dann, a Democrat who has clashed with Taft, said the governor could avoid resigning “if he finds religion about having a government that is not sold through campaign contributions.”

But Mark Rickel, Taft’s spokesman, said: “The governor will finish his term.” Taft plans to continue pushing for a number of programs, including a bond initiative to improve Ohio’s high-tech sector and education programs, Rickel said.

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“There is more that he wants to do,” Rickel said. “He has put forward a pretty ambitious agenda for the next 16 months.”


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