Gov. Bob Taft pleaded no contest Thursday to charges that he broke state ethics law by failing to report golf outings and other gifts. A judge fined him $4,000.
Taft told Franklin County Municipal Judge Mark Froehlich he chose not to plead guilty but was taking responsibility for ethics lapses. His no-contest plea wraps up the case less than 24 hours after Taft became the first Ohio governor charged with a crime.
He was fined the maximum $1,000 for each of four misdemeanor counts. No jail time was ordered; the charges carried a maximum sentence of six months on each count.
Taft nodded his head as the charges were read, and his wife, Hope, sat behind him showing no emotion.
The second-term Republican said that as governor he had expected all state workers to follow state ethics laws.
“In this instance I have failed to live up to the those high expectations,” he said.
Ordered to apologize
The judge ordered him to apologize.
“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,” Froehlich said.
Taft’s voice cracked as he spoke later at a news conference.
“There are no words to express the deep remorse that I feel over the embarrassment that I have caused for my administration and the people of the state of Ohio,” Taft said. The governor has fired others over ethics violations. But he said Thursday he would not resign, saying he still can be an effective governor and has much he wants to accomplish.
A no-contest plea is not an admission of guilt but means the defendant will not fight the charges. After Taft entered the plea, Froehlich found him guilty, a routine step in Ohio in no-contest pleas.
Defense attorney William Meeks said Taft has repaid people for the gifts.
Taft was charged Wednesday with failing to report 52 gifts, including dinners, golf games and professional hockey tickets over four years. The gifts were worth about $5,800, prosecutors said. Taft earlier had revealed that he failed to report some outings but said the omissions were accidental.
Golf benefactor tangled in coin scandal
Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said the gifts included two golf outings worth $100 each paid for by coin dealer Tom Noe, a Republican fundraiser whose $50 million investment of state money in rare coins launched the scandal that led to the accusations against Taft.
State law requires officeholders to report all gifts worth more than $75 if the donor wasn’t reimbursed.
O’Brien said the gifts also included meals and tickets for a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game.
The Ohio Ethics Commission last week concluded its investigation into Taft’s golf outings and forwarded the results to prosecutors.
A state task force and the commission are investigating public employees for similar offenses and O’Brien said he expected more serious felony charges to be charged, although not against Taft.
The alleged ethics violations 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.
Great-grandson of U.S. president
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.
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 released records Aug. 5 showing he accepted invitations to 21 golf outings since 1999, including one in 2001 with Noe. The coin dealer has contributed $22,190 to Taft’s political campaigns, state records show.
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.
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.
‘Culture of corruption’
Noe has acknowledged that up to $13 million is missing from the rare coins fund, and Attorney General Jim Petro has accused him of stealing as much as $4 million.
Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006, said the charges are part of a “culture of corruption” in Ohio.
Some residents also are fed up with the corruption.
“It’s a sad state of affairs,” said Bruce Lively, a Maumee resident who said he had backed Taft in the past but now thinks he should step down.
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.