Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Campaign reform gets new push

Blackwell says 'scandal' in Statehouse underscores need

By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Secretary of State Ken Blackwell stood up before nearly two dozen reporters and called it deja vu.

Almost two years ago to the day, he, Gov. Bob Taft and Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, stood in the same cabinet room, talked about the same kind of campaign finance reforms and predicted momentum was building to pass it.

On Monday they were back, this time joined by Rep. Jon Husted, R-Kettering, the presumptive speaker of the House in 2005. Again they stressed the need for full disclosure in Ohio's political process. Again they predicted passage.

"The difference is we now stand in a Statehouse awash in scandal," Blackwell said, "a scandal that was born under loose rules, and grew under blind eyes."

Backers of a plan to open all secret political party operating accounts and independent advocacy groups to full disclosure have watched - and in Blackwell's case initiated - state and federal investigations into allegations of dirty campaign tactics, fund raising and kickbacks.

The plan unveiled Monday would require county parties to disclose all money coming into and going out of operating accounts that are now hidden from public view. Ohio is one of only four states that allow political parties to raise undisclosed money.

Eric Sagun, 35, of Columbus pleaded guilty in July to one count of election law violations for his use of the Hamilton County GOP operating fund. He solicited a $50,000 donation from now-jailed Cleveland broker Frank Gruttadauria in December 2001 for the county party when they intended the money to benefit Treasurer Joe Deters' re-election campaign.

The proposed plan also would require independent advocacy groups to disclose all donors and spending. The groups have become infamous in recent Ohio elections for raising millions in anonymous money to spend on negative campaign ads.

The plan also would eliminate county party funds for state candidates, but no one knows how the more than $4.1 million spent by those funds on political campaigns since 2000 would be replaced.

The Hamilton County GOP has spent nearly $812,000 from its state candidate fund since 2000.

Catherine Turcer, legislative director for Ohio Citizen Action, said she likes the proposed reforms but hopes they also include a requirement that donors list their employer.

"People shouldn't need a secret decoder ring to try to figure out who's actually funding elections in Ohio," she said. "If you just have a name and address, you're missing the economic and policy interest behind the dollars."

The legislature is expected to take up the issue after the November election. "We will enact strong campaign finance reform before the end of this year," Taft said.


Email jsiegel@enquirer.com

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