Conflicted Senator

Jeffry Armbruster was the watchdog who didn't care to watch.

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Jeffry Armbruster, stalwart defender of no-bid - contracts.
Jeffry Armbruster, stalwart defender of no-bid contracts.
State Senator Jeffry Armbruster's timing couldn't have been worse.

The executive director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission, Gino Zomparelli, spent August and September of last year reveling in perks from the companies feeding at his toll-funded trough. He and his family enjoyed Browns tickets courtesy of National City Bank, Indians tickets from Independence Excavating, and 11 nights of dining and entertainment with his good friends at the architecture/engineering firm of HNTB Corp.

But Armbruster thought Zomparelli needed more power, not less. On September 27, the North Ridgeville Republican introduced a bill allowing the commission to ink contracts of up to $50,000 without competitive bidding, a 500 percent increase over the current threshold -- and a great way to give the schmooze-susceptible Zomparelli even more discretion in spending turnpike money.

Armbruster says he offered the bill at the behest of commission lobbyist Patrick Patton. "I said to Pat, 'If you have this prepared, why not have a debate?'"

The debate didn't happen. Instead, things got hairy. Ohio Inspector General Thomas Charles received an anonymous letter from turnpike employees, alleging Zomparelli was on the take. He started investigating, and Armbruster put his bill on hold.

Charles's report, released last month, is unlikely to move the bill to the fast track. It notes that Zomparelli and his staff raked in gifts from contractors, then failed to disclose them. The perks -- tickets, meals, and drinks -- didn't constitute major graft, but they did come in volume. Zomparelli also hired a commission member's son, his banker's son, and a neighbor. Moreover, Patton, the same lobbyist Armbruster was shilling for, was caught double-billing the commission for $8,740 in travel expenses already covered by another agency.

Fallout was swift. Within days, Zomparelli and Patton quit. State legislators -- who were, naturally, shocked, just shocked! -- started pitching ways to overhaul the turnpike commission. State Senator Kevin Coughlin (R-Cuyahoga Falls) announced a plan to dissolve it entirely.

Now Armbruster is facing questions of his own. When he launched his bill loosening commission rules on competitive bidding, he was actually a member of that very same commission. Oddly enough, he was also chairman of the Legislative Oversight Committee, set up by the Statehouse specifically to supervise it.

In terms of self-interest, it made sense: Armbruster was essentially asking for less oversight of himself and his friends. And all the while, he was accepting contributions from employees of commission contractors -- some of the same contractors pegged in Charles's report for wining and dining commission staff.

None of it was illegal. In fact, much of it was arranged or approved by Statehouse leadership. Nevertheless, the situation has given Armbruster's critics plenty of ammo.

"Here he had these positions, and he wasn't paying attention, and something did go terribly wrong," says Sue Morano, the Lorain Democrat challenging Armbruster this November. "Instead of monitoring the director, he's been trying to favor contractors by allowing more no-bid contracts."

Armbruster has no qualms about any of it. He prefers to see himself as a statesman. His conflicting roles, he argues, are actually an asset. "I'm a bridge between the legislature and the commission," he says.

Yet the point of an oversight committee would seem to be . . . well, oversight. When the panel was established, it was heralded as a "watchdog committee," as a Plain Dealer headline trilled.

The result, however, was designed more for PR than for substance. Democrats and Republicans alike admit the panel is essentially toothless. "We have neither the capacity nor authority to go in and investigate," says Representative Jeanine Perry (D-Toledo).

Adds state Representative Rex Damschroder (R-Fremont): "We don't have much power, other than the power to hold four meetings a year."

Which leaves Armbruster, ironically, brandishing the committee's toothlessness as his defense. How, he asks, can he be blamed for not knowing of the commission's problems, when the oversight committee wasn't actually designed to oversee anything?

Nor does Armbruster apologize for the money he takes from contractors. The contributions, he notes, are but a fraction of the $133,770 he raked in last year. Once again, he invokes a novel defense: Most of his contributors are actually regulated by other committees he sits on. And how could that be a problem? "A lot of people feel as though I do a good job," he says. "If they want to contribute to me, I'm going to accept it."

It says something about Ohio government that Armbruster isn't the first turnpike commission member asked to oversee himself. Former state Representative Robert Hagan (D-Youngstown) held the same two roles during the last big turnpike scandal. In 1993, the FBI was investigating possible kickbacks in the commission's $5 million contract with Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Hagan resigned from the commission, saying his double role was a conflict of interest and he wanted to focus on oversight.

But Hagan apparently didn't understand that no one was supposed to take this oversight business seriously. No sooner had he quit the turnpike commission than Speaker of the House Vern Riffe booted him from the oversight committee.

"There was a wink-and-a-nod relationship between the turnpike commission and the House members," says Hagan, now a senator. "The duty of an oversight committee is to make sure they're the check and balance, that they're representing the taxpayers . . . That isn't happening."

Hagan and others are now trying to dissolve the turnpike commission. Armbruster isn't joining them. He agrees the oversight committee has little power, but doesn't believe the turnpike commission needs major reform. He takes the one-bad-apple approach: "For one individual, or a group of people, who'd done things ethically wrong, that doesn't topple the world."

But Charles's report slams the commission for a "culture" in which gifts were brazenly accepted, making it easy for contractors to avoid trouble. "If things aren't going well on a particular job, it's a method of soothing things over," one contractor told investigators.

Indeed, when investigators first came calling, Zomparelli questioned their very jurisdiction. According to Charles's report, he suggested that Armbruster's oversight committee should handle the investigation. Zomparelli was no dope: He knew who had teeth and who didn't. He liked the toothless version just fine.

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