Gov. Taft#039;s own reputation for ethics now questioned

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Like a moralizing sea captain with a less than stellar crew, Gov. Bob Taft has rarely seen his own standards questioned in six years in office even as subordinates have resigned or been fired over their misdeeds.

That's what made his confession last week all the more surprising: he'd failed to file the proper ethics forms over golf outings and other events for several years.

''He was generally seen as quite squeaky clean,'' said Philip Russo, a political scientist at Miami University in Oxford.

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''While you may have had those who disagreed with the governor on policy issues, even within his own party, the issue of his being a straight shooter, usually a stalwart of integrity, wasn't a question,'' said Russo, director of Miami's Center for Public Management and Regional Affairs.

Taft's apparent golf gaffe threatens to directly involve him in a continuing investment scandal at the state insurance fund for injured workers.

Though Taft won't discuss his golfing partners, an attorney for Tom Noe, the Toledo-area coin dealer embroiled in the state's investment scandal, confirmed that Taft had played golf with Noe at least a couple of times.

It wasn't so much the nature of Taft's mistake as the mold it broke.

Taft, a Republican, has demanded ethics training for top staffers and agency directors since taking office in 1999.

Three former directors under Taft have resigned following accusations of accepting golf outings from companies that did business with their agencies. A March 2001 Ohio Ethics Commission memo specified that golf rounds should be reported as gifts.

Last month, Taft's former chief of staff acknowledged he'd stayed at Noe's Florida home and paid what experts say was below-market value.

Taft quickly distanced himself from the staffer, Brian Hicks, after that report, saying Hicks knew his expectations with respect to high ethical standards.

''If he failed to live up to these expectations in this instance, then I am disappointed,'' Taft said.

Taft made high ethical standards his hallmark from the moment he was sworn in just after midnight on Jan. 11, 1999, at the governor's residence in suburban Columbus.

As the ceremony concluded, he called his family legacy ''a tradition of integrity'' and ''ethical conduct in office.''

A month later, he hammered home the importance of ethics at his first cabinet meeting. Ohio Ethics Commission Executive Director David Freel addressed department heads and senior staff members about what is and is not ethical behavior.

Then Taft spokesman Scott Milburn said the governor didn't preach to the cabinet members, but ''everybody got it loud and clear.'

In October 1999, Taft ordered his top staffers and agency directors to take ethics training every two years.

When employees slipped, Taft reminded people of the importance of ethical behavior.

''Governor Taft viewed the management problems and ethical lapses, as reported by the inspector general, as unacceptable,'' Taft spokesman Orest Holubec said last year when the chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission resigned following a report that top racing officials bet on Ohio races.

Time will tell whether Taft's ethical reputation will dim, said Mark Cassell, a Kent State University political scientist.

''His golf problems are pretty minor,'' Cassell said. ''The biggest question for him and other Republicans, especially those in the Legislature, is the same as during the last election - what is it that they offer voters?''

Taft spokesman Mark Rickel wouldn't speculate on the future of Taft's reputation, but noted that the governor was the one who informed the ethics commission of the golf problem.

''It was the governor who made the realization and he himself contacted the commission to notify them,'' Rickel said.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is the statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.