Gov. Bob Taft's image as the "Mr. Clean" of Ohio politics has been tarnished by his being convicted of misdemeanor charges of violating state ethics law. The Taft family legacy of public service has also been tainted. And the Republican governor's effectiveness has become a question mark because his failure to report golf outings and other gifts worth $6,000 gives Democrats ammunition they will use often in next year's statewide elections.
That said, the governor deserves a chance to prove that the apology he issued Thursday to family, friends, staff members, supporters and to the residents of Ohio was sincere, and that he recognizes just how damaging such violations of the law are to the public's trust in government.
The apology, which was contained in a statement sent to the press around the state, offered at a news conference and made in personal telephone calls to journalists, is an important first step in the restoration of Taft's reputation. It is a reputation that until now has reflected his success in walking the political straight-and-narrow.
His tenure as a Hamilton County commissioner and secretary of state was free of allegations of wrongdoing. Even his seven years as governor have been devoid of major scandals -- until his admitted failure to report 52 gifts he received over four years.
How can the governor regain the trust of the people of Ohio?
By taking an aggressive stand against the pay-to-play system now in place in Columbus. The ongoing "coingate" investment scandal is the latest in a string of cases involving state government officials and major contributors to officeholders and political parties.
There is no evidence to date that Taft had anything to do with Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation's investing $50 million with Tom Noe, a rare coin dealer from Toledo who has long been a major fundraiser and contributor to Republican officeholders and candidates. Noe has acknowledged that up to $13 million is missing from the rare coins fund. Attorney General Jim Petro, a Republican, has accused Noe of stealing $4 million.
State Sen. Marc Dann, D-Liberty Township, who has been relentless in his pursuit of Noe and others involved in "coingate", has urged the governor to make public all written communication between his office and the BWC and all internal memos pertaining to the investments. Thus far, Taft has tried to block Dann in court.
But in light of his conviction, we would urge him to rethink that strategy.
The public has concluded that "coingate" is about the selling of state government and Taft now needs to get on the side of the angels.
The governor can also show that his failure to report the gifts was an anomaly by supporting a statewide ballot issue in the November general election that would lower the limit on individual political contributions from $10,000 to $2,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for legislative candidates.
A lower contribution limit would certainly go a long way toward ending the pay-to-play system that has been so detrimental to good government.
Finally, the governor should explain in detail how his failure to report the golf outings and other gifts is different from the ethics violations of those who worked for him and were subsequently fired by him because of the offenses. Isn't that a double standard?
"I hope you will understand that my mistake, though serious, was not a purposeful one and hope and pray that you will accept my heartfelt apology and allow me the opportunity to restore your trust," Taft said in the statement sent to the press.
The governor's actions will speak louder than his words.