Governor seeks to minimize guilt despite conviction

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Gov. Bob Taft's insistence that his ethics case differs from his underlings' wrongdoing is an argument that hinges on how easy it is to compare crimes.

A cinch, say Democrats. Pointless, say GOP backers.

Taft, convicted of four misdemeanors last week, has rebuffed calls for his resignation despite departures by members of his administration for their own bad behavior. ''Each case is different,'' he said.

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The Republican governor pleaded no contest Thursday to four charges that he was treated to numerous golf outings and other gifts that he didn't report.

Three former directors under Taft have resigned following accusations they took presents from companies that did business with their agencies.

In August 2002, for example, Taft fired Gino Zomparelli, the Ohio Turnpike Commission's executive director, after an investigation that concluded he and his staff accepted gifts from contractors so often it became part of the agency's culture.

In its report, the state watchdog found more than 170 instances of employees accepting meals, golf outings, sports tickets and luxury seats at professional sports games from contractors doing business with the commission.

Messages were left for Zomparelli seeking comment.

What those employees did was ''deeper than ethics, than just golf and gifts,'' said Taft spokesman Mark Rickel. ''There was more detailed information on other incidents that in those reports found reasonable cause to believe acts of wrongdoing occurred.''

Taft took full responsibility for his actions and apologized, he added.

That explanation hasn't washed with some Ohioans. In northwest Ohio, 18-year-old Jasmine Sears at first downplayed Taft's troubles.

''I don't see what the big fuss is all about. It's just free golf,'' she said, sitting on a park bench along the Maumee River last week.

Yet told he had forced out aides for similar ethics violations, she said, ''That's not fair at all.''

Taft's case is part of a broader culture of political corruption, said Rep. Chris Redfern of Port Clinton, the top-ranking House Democrat.

''Clearly it's the same. You can't lie a little. You can't steal a little. You can't be on the take a little,'' Redfern said.

Undermining the governor's argument is his conviction, which he did not challenge, said Ohio State University criminal law professor Joshua Dressler.

''There's nothing that prevents a person from continuing to trivialize or minimize one's behavior if people are willing to accept that,'' he said.

The state's ethics czar wouldn't compare past cases with Taft's investigation.

''The cases involving the violations of the law are all dependent on their individual facts and circumstances,'' said David Freel, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission.

In the turnpike case, investigators didn't draw conclusions about what companies got in return for their gifts, though they warned of the appearance of impropriety.

In Taft's case, the Ohio Ethics Commission also ruled out a tit-for-tat arrangement between Taft and his golf partners, who ranged from former CSX Corp. chairman John Snow to longtime friends with no connections to state government.

People trying to link Taft with his employees' wrongdoing are tripping over semantics, said Jason Mauk, political director for the state GOP.

In the former cases, ''you have a detailed list of very egregious violations of state ethics laws,'' said Jason Mauk, political director for the state GOP. ''The governor's situation is a reporting error.''

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