By: ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, The Associated Press
(AP) Gov. Bob Taft, who pushed for high ethical standards in his office, will face four criminal misdemeanor charges for not reporting golf outings and other events paid for by others. The charges are the latest development in a growing scandal — spurred in part by newspaper reports — that has rocked Ohio’s Republican Party.
Taft, a member of a distinguished U.S. political family, would be the first governor in Ohio history to be charged with a crime. If convicted, he could be fined $1,000 and sentenced to six months in jail on each count, though time behind bars was considered unlikely.
Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said the charges relate to annual financial disclosure statements Taft filed from 2002 to 2005. Prosecutors said they had met with Taft’s lawyer and expected the governor to appear in court Thursday.
Taft, 63 and nearing the end of his second term, would be the highest-ranking official to be charged in a ballooning scandal that began with press revelations of problems with an unusual state investment in rare coins. His former chief of staff was convicted of an ethics violation in July.
The investment was handled by coin dealer Tom Noe, a top GOP donor. Noe has acknowledged that up to $13 million is missing from the fund, and Attorney General Jim Petro has accused him of stealing as much as $4 million.
Taft will respond publicly on Thursday and is not planning to resign, spokesman Mark Rickel said.
Investigators have looked for weeks at Taft’s alleged violation of a law requiring officeholders to report all gifts worth more than $75 if the donor wasn’t reimbursed.
O’Brien said Wednesday the outings that Taft failed to disclose included golf games and a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game.
Taft released records Aug. 5 showing he accepted invitations to 21 golf outings since 1999, including one with Noe in 2001.
The records did not indicate who paid for the outings. Taft’s golf partners included John Snow, then the head of transportation company CSX Corp. and now the U.S. Treasury secretary; and Tony Alexander, president and chief executive of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.
Some partners have said Taft paid for the golf; others have said they picked up the tab.
In a speech in May, the governor stressed the importance of ethical behavior for public employees.
“Public employees can enjoy entertainment, such as golf or dining out, with persons working for a regulated company, or one doing business with the state, ONLY if they fully pay their own way,” he said in the speech at Xavier University.
Taft’s former chief of staff Brian Hicks pleaded no contest last month to failing to report stays at Noe’s million-dollar Florida home. He was fined $1,000.
The charges against Taft are another blow to the GOP in the Republican-controlled state that won President Bush re-election. Democrats have found hope for the next election in the investment scandal and a surprisingly close congressional race this month for an open seat in a GOP stronghold.
Taft’s great-grandfather was President William Howard Taft — who later was chief justice — and both his father and grandfather were U.S. senators from Ohio.
Other Ohio governors have come under investigation, including Republican George Voinovich, investigated for unproven allegations he laundered campaign money, and Democrat Richard Celeste, whose connections to a contributor who owned the failed Home State Savings Bank were examined.
Taft was elected governor in 1998, following the most expensive campaign in state history. He also had been secretary of state, a state representative and a county commissioner in his hometown of Cincinnati.