By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Campaign finance reform under serious discussion by state leaders could eliminate the practice of anonymous fund-raising by political parties in Hamilton County and across Ohio.
The fund-raising is done through the operating accounts of political parties that can collect unlimited, undisclosed donations.
"I know one thing, the voters expect you to clean up anything in your own party," said Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.
"And if you don't do it, they'll do it for you. That's why getting campaign finance reform off the table and passed by the end of the year will be a plus."
The issue flared anew this week when Eric Sagun, 35, a former fund-raiser for state Treasurer Joe Deters and the Hamilton County Republican Party, pleaded guilty to one count of election law violations.
The misdemeanor charge related to his soliciting $50,000 on behalf of Deters that was sent to the Hamilton County GOP's operating account. Deters, a former county prosecutor and county party chairman, was not accused of any wrongdoing.
"If the reforms happen that I want, that will not be possible," Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, said of the ability to disguise donations. "Anything that is contributed to anybody for any reason would be fully known to the public."
Gardner, the No. 2-ranking GOP senator, is working with Rep. Jon Husted, R-Kettering, the presumptive speaker of the House in 2005, on reforms requiring full disclosure of party operating accounts and third-party issue advocacy groups.
One goal is to eliminate secrecy and clear up the gray areas of how operating accounts can be used.
The operating accounts originally were designed to help pay for such things as rent, utilities and lower-level staffers.
Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is investigating the use of the Montgomery County Republican Party operating account by former party chairman Sen. Jeff Jacobson, R-Dayton, who has denied any wrongdoing.
At issue is whether Jacobson improperly used the account to assist his efforts to become Senate president, an endeavor he has since abandoned.
Blackwell also is questioning the reporting of a $14,000 contribution from that operating account to a nonprofit Dayton-based organization, Citizens for Conservative Values. The organization was formed, in part, to help Husted get elected House speaker.
"The secrecy surrounding state and county party operating funds are taking its toll on the integrity of the Republican Party," Blackwell said Wednesday. "We find ourselves in the situation where more people are going to view us as part of the problem exclusively, or part of the solution."
Gardner said he supports eliminating operating accounts at the county party level, to avoid having to develop a lengthy set of regulations spelling out how they should be used.
But others, including Husted, are not committing to going that far, instead focusing solely on full disclosure.
While Husted and Gardner said campaign finance reform is a priority when the legislature returns, Rep. Patricia Clancy, R-Colerain Township, noted she doesn't hear from many constituents on the issue.
She supports disclosure of any money used for campaign purposes, but is hesitant to outright eliminate operating funds, saying it could put county parties like the Hamilton GOP at a "major disadvantage."
"If the county party cannot access those kind of accounts, they have to find other ways to pay clerical staff or summer interns," she said.
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