Ethics chief: Panel puts politics aside

COLUMBUS (AP) -- The state's ethics commission, currently dominated by Democrats as it investigates Republican Gov. Bob Taft, doesn't let politics get in the way of its deliberations, members said Wednesday.
The Ohio Ethics Commission, which is investigating Taft's failure to report several golf outings, holds a regular monthly meeting Thursday.
Before the meeting, the commission's investigative subcommittee was expected to hear an update from chief investigator Paul Nick and receive additional documents about Taft.
No action was expected on Taft's case. The commission's meetings are closed and commission members wouldn't talk specifically about the investigation.
The commission is investigating Taft, a Republican, after his acknowledgment that he failed to report up to 60 golf outings as governor.
Taft could be charged if he did not report outings paid for by others that exceeded $75.
Outsider commitment
While not a law enforcement agency, the results of commission investigations are often forwarded to prosecutors for possible criminal charges.
Last month, for example, the commission filed a complaint against Brian Hicks, Taft's former chief of staff, that led to Hicks' conviction on a violation of Ohio ethics laws.
The six-person commission is bipartisan by law but has one current vacancy that gives Democrats a three-two edge.
Commission chairman Merom Brachman, who made political contributions to Taft several years ago, said the committee often investigates elected officials without regard to their party affiliation.
"The commission has often dealt with matters affecting elected officials and I'm not aware of past campaign contributions ever limiting the ability to review and enforce the law," Brachman said Wednesday.
Brachman, a Columbus business owner and a Republican, gave Taft $1,850 between 1993 -- when Taft was secretary of state -- and 1998, when Taft ran for governor, according to state campaign finance records.
Josiah Blackmore, a Democrat on the commission, said politics don't come up in discussions, including about Taft.
Where the governor is concerned, "there's been no disagreement that there's no special treatment to be given," said Blackmore, 70, a Capital University law professor and former Capital president.
Blackmore contributed $250 to the campaign of Democrat Lee Fisher, Taft's 1998 opponent, in 1997 and 1998.
Commission jurisdiction
The commission has healthy discussions of cases under review, said Ann Marie Tracey, a Democratic commission member from Cincinnati who wouldn't talk about current investigations.
"We don't operate on a partisan basis, that's just not part of the discussions," said Tracey, 55, a Xavier University law professor and former assistant U.S. attorney and Hamilton County judge.
Her contributions to Democrats included $200 to Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Tim Black in his 2002 Supreme Court race and $150 to Mary Boyle for her state treasurer's race. Both candidates lost.
The commission can close a case without taking action, refer findings to a prosecutor or negotiate a settlement.
The commission also issues opinions on questions about ethics, including a 2001 ruling that said state law prohibits public officials from accepting golf outings as gifts from people doing business with the state.
Santiago Feliciano, a Cleveland Democrat and former commission member, said members will look at Taft without regard to his status or party.
Feliciano, 53, was appointed by Gov. George Voinovich and reappointed by Taft. He was on the commission when its 1997 investigation into Voinovich's former chief of staff, the late Paul Mifsud, led to Mifsud's conviction on ethics violations.
"If the evidence is there, they'll do what's appropriate," Feliciano said Wednesday. "They may be personally upset, but they'll do the right thing. There's no question in my mind."
Taft trusts the commission members to follow their oath of office, spokesman Orest Holubec said Wednesday.

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