Brunner: Blackwell left state office in a mess


YOUNGSTOWN —  Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner says J. Kenneth Blackwell, her predecessor, left the office in poor financial shape in a politically motivated move.

“It was partisan actions that shouldn’t have occurred,” Brunner, a Columbus Democrat, told The Vindicator today after she swore in Judge Mary DeGenaro of the 7th District Court of Appeals to a second six-year term.

Blackwell, a Cincinnati Republican, was his party’s failed gubernatorial candidate in the November 2006 election. Blackwell served the past eight years as secretary of state.

Brunner pointed to a number of questionable decisions made by Blackwell as he was leaving the office.

The latest is a discovery that more than 50,000 letters to inform corporations that their state charters were canceled because they failed to pay state taxes were never mailed, Brunner said. Some of the letters are five years old, she said.

Also, Brunner said office workers whom she employs who used to work for Blackwell told her the envelopes for those letters were purposely destroyed by Blackwell’s staff between the time she was elected Nov. 7 and the time she took office Jan. 8.

“I would say that’s a tall tale,” said Carlo LoParo, Blackwell’s former spokesman. “It’s highly unethical and highly unlikely. It’s pretty far-fetched.”

Brunner said during the first six months of the 2006-07 fiscal year that began July 1, Blackwell used 69 percent of the office’s general fund budget of about $3 million.

Brunner will ask the state Controlling Board shortly for authorization to use about $1 million to get the office through the end of the fiscal year.

More was spent during the first six months of the fiscal year because of the statewide elections, LoParo said.

Brunner said she doesn’t buy that argument because most of the office’s money goes toward employees’ salaries and benefits and not toward running elections.

“The explanation doesn’t hold a lot of water,” she said.

Brunner complained that Blackwell gave bonuses, from about $1,000 to $4,000, to 19 of his top assistants, with the total cost of those being more than $80,000.

“Those were out-of-the-ordinary bonuses,” she said. “He said he did it so they wouldn’t apply for unemployment, but three of them have already done so. I’m going to talk to the attorney general [Marc Dann] to see if we can do something about that.”

LoParo said the severance package amounts aren’t unusually high.

“It’s very disingenuous of the new secretary of state to make these statements,” he said.

Blackwell also left Brunner with 20 unresolved lawsuits against him, ex-Gov. Bob Taft and the state for election issues going back to 2004. Fighting the lawsuits would cost millions of dollars, and Brunner said she agrees with many of the issues raised in the lawsuits. Brunner said she wants to settle them.

“When I leave this office, I know I’ll handle the transition much better and more professionally” than Blackwell, she said.

This was Brunner’s first visit to the Mahoning Valley since taking office.

She met Judge DeGenaro, a Republican, in late 2000 in training seminars in Columbus for incoming judges — they both referred to it as “baby judge school” —  after Judge DeGenaro was elected to the appellate court and Brunner was elected to a seat on the Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

“We’ve stayed close over the last six years,” Brunner said. “We both work across [political] party lines.”

About 100 people, including more than a dozen judges, packed the court of appeals courtroom and lobby to watch the swearing-in ceremony.

Judge DeGenaro, of Poland, was re-elected in November, defeating Tim Franken of Beaver Township.

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