By David Skolnick
The Ohio Ethics Commission has referred charges of criminal conduct to three county prosecutors after completing its investigation of Anthony S. Gutierrez in connection to a scandal at the attorney general’s office during the Marc Dann administration.
The recommendations are part of a widespread investigation of Dann and a group of his senior managers during his 17 months as state attorney general.
The ethics commission investigates alleged violations of the state’s ethics law and related statutes, but has no power to prosecute. Instead, it refers its findings to prosecuting agencies such as county prosecutors.
The commission’s investigation report, released Monday along with the inspector general’s report on the Dann administration, alleges at least five misdemeanor ethics violations by Gutierrez, a close friend of Dann’s who served as director of general services.
Gutierrez and Sam Amendolara, his attorney, have refused to comment on the investigation.
The commission report alleges that Gutierrez used state equipment and resources to operate his private business, hid the fact that he owned the business from state officials, and improperly received money from Dann’s campaign fund through “deception.”
These allegations could lead to misdemeanor charges, each carrying a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine in addition to restitution.
Sources close to the investigation say Gutierrez plans to accept a plea agreement that would reduce the charges.
In exchange, Gutierrez, of Liberty, would cooperate with law enforcement agencies to provide information on others who may have committed illegal acts at the attorney general’s office under Dann’s watch, the sources say.
The ethics commission report referred the recommended Gutierrez charges to prosecutors in Franklin, Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
Because most of the supposed criminal acts occurred in Franklin, Ron O’Brien, that county’s prosecutor, is coordinating the effort.
Dann, of Liberty, insists he hasn’t done anything illegal.
In a report, released Monday, Ohio Inspector General Thomas P. Charles listed 25 acts of alleged wrongdoing by Dann, some of his closest friends in the office, including Gutierrez, as well as Dann’s wife, Alyssa Lenhoff.
Lenhoff is also adamant that she did nothing illegal.
Mentioned in Charles’ report was a $2,480 check from Dann’s campaign account, deposited March 6, to the M&R Land Co., owned by Michael Harshman, Dann’s attorney and confidant.
Lenhoff made five cash deposits to her and Dann’s personal bank account that totaled that same amount, Charles said.
However, bank records provided to The Vindicator Tuesday by Lenhoff contradict that statement.
Charles’ report accuses Dann and others of improperly using money from the state, his campaign fund and a transition corporation he established shortly after his victory in the 2006 election for attorney general.
The ethics commission report states investigations into potential ethics law violations continue against Dann, Lenhoff, and three former attorney general staffers.
Among the staffers is Leo Jennings III, a close friend of Dann’s and his former communications director.
The commission is investigating payments of more than $100,000 to Progressive Solutions Group, Jennings’ political consulting firm, from Dann’s campaign fund, the report states.
The inspector general states those campaign funds were improperly used to pay the rent and utilities for a Dublin condominium shared by Dann, Jennings and Gutierrez.
Also, Jennings received almost $10,000 from the Dann transition fund and didn’t include that on his state financial disclosure statement, potentially a violation of state law and the state falsification statute, the ethics commission report states.
The ethics commission report lists potential criminal acts committed by Gutierrez. They are:
UGutierrez used “the personnel, resources, equipment and time of the attorney general’s office and the state of Ohio to operate his private business [MTV Construction].” This matter was referred to the Franklin and Mahoning prosecutors.
UGutierrez on April 2 “filed a false financial disclosure statement with the Ohio Ethics Commission” by failing to disclose MTV as his business, a $5,000 loan from Dann’s transition committee and “made material false statements concerning his employment status during the attorney general’s office internal investigation of his conduct.” This was referred to Franklin County.
UGutierrez took “by deception” $5,000 from Dann’s campaign committee. He had a company that installed a security system and windows at Dann’s Liberty house add $5,000 to the bill, according to the inspector general’s report. He then instructed the contractor to write three checks to three creditors to whom MTV Construction owed money. That was referred to Trumbull County.
UGutierrez violated state law by operating the business without a required state Bureau of Workers’ Compensation policy.
Charles’ report and one by the Ohio secretary of state of Dann’s campaign expenditures were sent to the Ohio Elections Commission. The commission will review the reports at its Jan. 22 meeting.
The secretary of state had asked Dann’s campaign May 30 for information on thousands of dollars paid for hotel, airfare, and food and beverage expenses.
When the secretary of state filed its complaint last Thursday, those items were omitted. But they are included in the inspector general’s report.
While the secretary of state’s office had questions about those issues, J. Curtis Mayhew, its campaign finance administrator, said Tuesday that “there were explanations [by Dann’s committee] that led us to see the transactions as legitimate.”
The inspector general looks at the same issues differently, he said.
“The purchase of food, beverages and travel expenses are presumed to be legitimate unless we have a reason to believe they’re not,” Mayhew said.
“I don’t suggest Mr. Charles’ charge is meritless,” he added. “Because there’s sufficient gray area in the statute we allow candidates to utilize their campaign funds” in ways the office considers “reasonable.”
Charges for food, beverage and travel to campaign committees are common among officeholders, Mayhew said.