Tuesday, January 20, 2004

GOP leader ignores order to liquidate secret account

Inside Ohio's Capital

Debra Jasper and Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus bureau

As leader of the Ohio Republican Party, Bob Bennett is happy to take credit for the GOP's 10-year dominance of state government.

A big supply of campaign cash also helps. On Friday, Bennett refused to back away from one controversial method to help keep that money coming.

The state party, and its county parties, can accept large amounts of money from secret donors to their operating accounts. These funds pay for salaries, get-out-the-vote drives and other day-to-day party activities.

Campaign reformers say these accounts need to be disclosed.

Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Ohio's top election official, has ordered party leaders to liquidate the accounts. He argues changes in federal campaign finance laws require party officials to do this.

Bennett disagrees. The destruction of those assets "may be a goal of Secretary Blackwell, but it is not something mandated by law," he said.

Blackwell says he's not trying to bankrupt the party. He just wants them to follow the law.

"There are alternative ways of moving that (money) that won't decimate the party's coffers," he said. "If there was money raised in a secret account, as of the end of last year they should have spent all the money in those accounts."

CONSULTING: Rumors that Bennett will soon retire from the party's chairmanship were strengthened Friday when he announced he's taking a job with a political consulting firm.

He will work as a consultant for Strategic Public Partners, a group that helps businesses deal with government. The firm is headed by Tom Whatman, the state party's former executive director.

Bennett tried to dispel the notion that he will step down after the 2004 election.

"He is simply looking at a variety of business opportunities and starting to lay the groundwork for the day he does resign his chairmanship duties," said Jason Mauk, the party's spokesman.

Becoming a political consultant or lobbyist is the typical jump public officials take into the private sector pool. Lot of folks are making that jump these days, especially Taft administration officials.

Doug Moorman, Taft's former business adviser, is now a lobbyist with the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.

Brian Hicks, Taft's chief of staff, has formed his own company. Even Tom Zaino, the governor's tax commissioner, has gone "consultant," joining Cleveland accounting firm McDonald Hopkins Co. The firm offers tax advice to corporations.

As tax commissioner, Zaino tried and failed to get lawmakers to close the legal loopholes some corporations exploit to lower their state income taxes.


Debra Jasper (djasper@enquirer.com) and Spencer Hunt (shunt@enquirer.com) cover the Statehouse.

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