Thanks a Lot, George

Scandal has shaken many a state agency, but the current governor is only partly to blame. Many of these losers were left by his predecessor.

American Splendor Cedar Lee Theatre
Governor Bob Taft must be feeling pretty low these days.

His prescription-drug plan was delayed, then upstaged by another design. His promise not to raise the sales tax without a vote by the masses vanished when legislators wouldn't go for his budget-balancing tariffs on booze and smokes. A university study suggested that his Ohio Reads program is little more than a $138 million publicity stunt.

Then, on Election Day 2003, voters rejected Issue 1, a bond issue that would have released $500 million in grants and loans to Ohio businesses and research centers. Issue 1 was a major component of the Third Frontier, Taft's attempt to scrape the rust from the state's economy. The Issue 1 campaign spent $3 million and faced no organized opposition.

It also picked a lousy frontman in Bob Taft.

In happier times, Taft's lack of charisma might have been seen as refreshing triumph of substance over style. But with all indicators pointing downward, he looks a boob, a wuss -- yet another argument against choosing leaders for their paternal bloodlines.

Surely, anyone in the seat of power would have struggled to govern a state hollowed by a national recession, a nitwit legislature, and a tax-averse, entitlement-inclined public. State-government work these days is synonymous with crisis management. Ohio's tax hikes and service reductions, then, might be tolerable if the state appeared to be in capable hands. One-party rule should buy at least a little efficiency, right? Alas, it does not. In the last three years, scandal has wended through state government like a flu bug through a crowded house.

· The Department of Job and Family Services paid $60 million for an internet system that had to be junked months later. The same agency illegally withheld millions in child support from needy families.

· Bosses at the state fair, the turnpike, and the commission that oversees new school construction lost their jobs after investigations revealed their greediness for gifts from contractors.

· The state health director awarded an unbid, $25,000 contract to two sons of Dick Schafrath, a former state senator and "fitness czar." One son lived in Connecticut; the other was a college student.

· A high-ranking Department of Transportation official was fired for asking the Ohio Ready Mixed Concrete Association to refer a driveway specialist. (Naturally, she got a good deal.) Separately, an Ohio newspaper questioned how the transportation department paid at least $10 million in overtime for eight consecutive years.

· Shredded documents and tee times with utility execs doomed Rob Tongren, the head of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel. Tongren ordered the destruction of a report suggesting that he let First Energy rake off undeserved billions from the negotiating table.

Tongren embarrassed the governor only to the extent that the episode gave newspapers grounds to mention that Taft occasionally borrows the First Energy jet. Tongren is not a "Taft guy," as he was named counsel in 1994, four years before the current governor's first election.

In fact, many of the public officials recently exposed as cheats and incompetents rose to their stations during the tenure of Taft's predecessor, George Voinovich, now a United States senator.

Voinovich has built a reputation for thrift during his many years in public office. He carried the City of Cleveland out of default and, as governor, held state spending to its lowest growth in 30 years. "Everyone has to work harder and smarter and do more with less," he liked to say. It is said that he once fished a coin out of a urinal.

For a select few, however, Voinovich's charge to exert and conserve did not apply. Some of his most trusted advisors and most significant appointees used public service for personal gain. Functionaries, they fancied themselves something more and rewarded themselves accordingly.

Taft is left to mop up their inflated sense of self-worth.

The Ohio School Facilities Commission worked on a sort of buddy system. Everybody was buddies with everybody else.

The commission was created in 1997, as the legislature grappled with the lawsuit challenging the state's method of funding public education. To address some of the inequalities between richer and poorer districts, lawmakers appropriated billions of dollars to repair and replace crumbling schools. The project is so massive that the commission spends about $2.5 million a day.

As run by Executive Director Randall Fischer until he resigned in 2002, the commission strove to forge "cooperative relationships" among architects, builders, and school districts. Such "partnering," as it was called, was designed to "minimize disputes and nurture a more collaborative ethic." It also allowed Fischer and other senior staff to accept meals, tickets to entertainment events, and golf invitations from contractors. A report by the inspector general, the state watchdog, said that Fischer took the partnering concept "to an entirely new level."

Many of the builders who made gifts to Fischer and other officials received unbid work -- $45.6 million worth, according to The Columbus Dispatch's calculation. The inspector general said that the facilities commission failed to ensure that school districts received the best quality at the lowest cost; a Franklin County judge called the bidding process a "sham."

Fischer quit after acknowledging that he socialized with and accepted gifts from contractors. He was convicted last summer on two criminal ethics charges.

Fischer had been appointed to the commission by then-Governor Voinovich. Before then, Fischer was state architect under Voinovich. The two men went back to Voinovich's first campaign for governor, when Fischer was the advance man.

As state architect, Fischer was in a position to select construction managers for various state projects. One such company, Banks Carbone Construction, won at least $3.7 million in no-bid state contracts. The Akron Beacon Journal revealed that much of the work came after the Banks and Carbone families contributed more than $10,000 to the governor's reelection effort. Banks Carbone also hired the governor's campaign treasurer as its accountant.

But in building an addition onto the exurban Columbus house of the fiancée of Voinovich's chief of staff, another Banks company, T.G. Banks & Associates, made a little too apparent its appreciation for the administration.

A county engineer later alleged that a work order was altered to conceal the fact that the fiancée had paid $98,000 less than the original estimate. Eventually, the governor's chief of staff, Paul Mifsud, pleaded guilty to obstructing official business and violating ethics laws. He served six months at a work-release prison facility. (Banks was also convicted on an ethics violation.) While serving Voinovich, Mifsud had also been accused of bribery, bid rigging, and illegally soliciting campaign contributions.

Mifsud became a consultant after returning to civilian life. He was one of many Statehouse pros hired by First Energy during its push for favorable terms of deregulation. He died in 2000 after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Mifsud influences state politics even in death. Matthew McAuliffe, once Mifsud's personal assistant, was identified as Treasurer Joe Deters's point man in deciding which investments firms would handle the state's $358 million tobacco settlement. For Deters, the settlement money primed campaign contributions -- and possibly more. Two men associated with a Pennsylvania investment firm that received $42 million contributed to a political-action committee that gave $58,000 to the Hamilton County Republican Party and other entities supportive of the treasurer. Last week, a grand jury indicted Frank Gruttadauria, the swindling stockbroker, charging that he bribed people linked to Deters.

Bob Taft became governor in 1999. One of his first big ideas was to combine the Department of Human Services with the Bureau of Employment. The merging of agencies made sense, given the changes in federal law that required welfare recipients to look for work before their benefits ran out.

But no reorganization chart accounted for institutionalized depravity. For years, human-services directors had approached their jobs by throwing gobs of money at companies like Andersen Consulting and Bank One. In return, the state received what unwavering faith in the private sector usually brings: disappointment and a thin wallet.

Exhibit A: the Support Enforcement Tracking System (SETS).

A change in federal law put the state in charge of collecting and dispersing child-support payments, which had been a county responsibility. Soon after Ohio's system became operational in 2000, mothers started complaining that their checks were short.

Turns out the moms were right. The rechristened Department of Job and Family Services later admitted that its newfangled system improperly siphoned child support -- $13 million worth, it was determined later -- owed to families that had been on welfare. A 1996 law change said that families, not the state, should have first crack at recovered past-due child support. Family Services said it ignored the law and implemented the system in order to meet deadlines and avoid fines. "They punished the kids and saved the government, which is a little backwards," says Geraldine Jensen, a Toledo mother-turned-activist.

Remarkably, the state had paid about $300 million for the flawed system. Bank One thanked Ohio families for its unbid $50-million-a-year SETS contract by charging noncustomers a $3 check-cashing charge. (Criticized for the excessive fee, the bank later waived the charge.)

Another SETS supplier, American Management Systems (AMS), received $87 million in unbid contract work from Family Services, according to an investigation by the inspector general. An anonymous letter alleging contract-steering prompted the IG to look at the department. The report, completed in 2001, showed that Arnold Tompkins, Human Services Director under Voinovich, inked consulting deals with AMS and Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) after he left state service. The gigs paid Tompkins $10,000 monthly retainers.

As director, Tompkins had been good to both companies. In one instance, a contract-review committee said Andersen's $16 million bid was too high. Tompkins ignored the recommendation and approved the contract anyway. A former deputy director said that after another review meeting, Tompkins declared, "Hands down, Andersen was the best, and we are going with them."

But Andersen was hardly the best. For $60 million, the company developed an internet-based job-matching system, Ohio Works, so lacking in one important category -- usefulness -- that it had to be scrapped. In building Ohio Works, Andersen treated the state like a stolen ATM card. One Andersen consultant was paid $123,000 for working 492 hours in one month -- that's 16 hours a day for 31 days.

The inspector general concluded that Tompkins had not acted in the best interest of the state and was "merely attempting to establish goodwill and guarantee future [consulting] business" with Andersen and AMS. He later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor ethics charges.

The shenanigans did not end with Tompkins, though.

Tapped by the freshly inaugurated Taft, Tompkins's replacement, Jacqui Romer-Sensky, had been a loyal soldier in the previous administration. Hired by Voinovich as an executive assistant in 1991, she rose to become his director of cabinet affairs. Romer-Sensky had been "instrumental" in Tompkins's 1993 hiring, according to the inspector general. It was surely a tribute to Romer-Sensky's service when Voinovich, in his last year in office, named her to the Ohio University Board of Trustees.

Five months passed between Tompkins's departure and Romer-Sensky's hiring. In that time, they worked together as consultants.

Once named head of Family Services, Romer-Sensky continued in the Tompkins tradition of awarding fat, unbid contracts to Andersen and AMS. She sought and received Controlling Board approval to ink multimillion-dollar deals, disregarding warnings that the contracts may have violated federal rules.

Though Romer-Sensky profited from the consulting partnership's contracts with Andersen and AMS, she had not committed wrongdoing in the eyes of the inspector general, which noted that "the appearance of impropriety may have been unavoidable under these circumstances."

Still, Romer-Sensky was undone by the shoddiness of the work for which the department had paid so extravagantly. She resigned when Taft made it clear that he was taking full responsibility for the child-support fiasco by blaming her. His staff reworked a memo to show that the governor had not been properly alerted to Family Services' tribulations.

In throwing Romer-Sensky under a train, the Taft regime also made it clear whence she came. The first paragraph of the press release announcing her resignation thanked her for many years of public service "during the Voinovich administration and throughout my term."

The Ohio Legislature created the Turnpike Commission in 1949. In its time, the turnpike was the largest construction program in state history. The 241-mile highway required the sweat of 10,000 workers and three years to complete.

The establishment of the interstate highway system made irrelevant any plans for future toll roads in Ohio. The state and the feds agreed that the turnpike would become toll-free when the construction bonds were retired in 1992, 50 years after crews broke ground.

But a year before the tolls were to expire, the legislature passed a law keeping the booths open. (The turnpike paid lobbyists $360,000 to work their magic in Columbus.) A few years later, the commission announced an 80 percent toll hike.

The legislature would have been wise to dismantle the commission and give its duties to the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). Flush with toll money and virtually unaccountable, the turnpike enriched the lives of a privileged few.

Then someone spoiled the fun. In 2001, the inspector general received a letter from anonymous turnpike employees that detailed Director Gino Zomparelli's poor work habits and willingness to accept gifts from contractors.

Promoted from turnpike legal counsel to director in 1999, Zomparelli enjoyed one of the sweetest gigs in Ohio. For one, the pay was excellent. Zomparelli made $150,000 a year -- far more than the ODOT director made for supervising many more miles of road. In fact, while running the turnpike, Zomparelli found enough time on the side to manage rental property, handle the financial transactions of a construction company owned by his father, and serve as a Cuyahoga County court arbiter.

Job security? Commissioners signed Zomparelli to a five-year contract.

The perks were plum, too. Following the tip, the inspector general found pervasive gift-taking at the turnpike. Investigators identified 170 occasions over a three-year period when officials and employees accepted meals, Browns tickets, and other goodies from vendors. At least 30 officials and employees enjoyed the spoils, and none was as eager as Zomparelli. In 2001, an architectural firm entertained the director 13 different times, according to subpoenaed records.

Zomparelli fought the investigation that later described the free flow of gratuities at the turnpike as "part of the culture." He refused at first to give up documents and hired $175-an-hour lawyers, who screened the inspector general's requests for records and interviews. The IG's office noted that, in its experience, no other state agency had used outside counsel to buffer an investigation.

Ultimately, Zomparelli did not survive the release of the findings. He resigned at the rather vociferous urging of Governor Taft.

Of course, the sense of cloister and entitlement at the turnpike predated Zomparelli. Four of the seven commissioners are appointed by the governor, and while he was in office, Voinovich didn't put his choices through the most stringent of tests. Umberto Fedeli, the commission chairman at the time Zomparelli was hired as legal counsel, was investigated by the FBI and the Ohio Ethics Commission for the coincidence of turnpike vendors who also happened to be clients of his insurance business.

Voinovich appointed Fedeli during his first year in office. Fedeli, according to Democratic political consultant Gerald Austin, "was one of his major fund-raisers and still is."

While a commissioner, Fedeli denied wrongdoing and was never charged with a crime or violation. Still, subsequent disclosure statements, which Fedeli was tardy in filing, showed that his insurance business earned $2 million from companies that did work for the turnpike.

Fedeli resigned in 1998. Though he left with more than a year remaining on his term, he outlasted earlier calls for departure. He remains active in Republican and Catholic causes. His Gates Mills home recently hosted a party celebrating Voinovich's 40 years of marriage and 40th year in politics. Fedeli owes much to Voinovich. Austin says Fedeli's insurance business benefited greatly when Voinovich instituted managed care for injured workers. "It's a gift," Austin says. "You don't have to go out and look for business as much as it's there for you." (Fedeli did not respond to Scene's request for an interview.)

Fedeli has also kept an eye on the turnpike. According to the inspector general's report, Zomparelli met with two companies wanting to do turnpike business at Fedeli's office in Independence.

As governor, Voinovich appointed two men to run the Ohio State Fair. Both stepped in shit.

Voinovich's first appointment, used-car salesman Billy Inmon, was a clown. Inmon gave jobs to his pals, awarded contracts (including a whopper to Pepsi) without the governing commission's necessary approval, and tried to ban the Stonewall Union from leasing its usual booth. He was fired after his only state fair, which ended $3.8 million in the red.

Unembarrassed, Inmon would go on to oppose Voinovich in the 1994 governor's race. After being excluded from debates, Inmon staged a hunger strike. He collapsed and was hospitalized after 27 days of living and starving in a tent pitched outside the capitol.

Tabbed by Voinovich to replace Inmon, Richard Frenette was credited with restoring honesty to the state fair. Inmon, using what he called a "secret formula," had said 3.4 million people attended the 1992 expo. It was more like 500,000. Under Frenette, fair attendance figures could be believed again.

But if Frenette was the right man for the job in 1993, he was the wrong man a decade later. Acting on a complaint from the Department of Agriculture, the inspector general (yes, him again) released a report in September that showed a lackadaisical Frenette favoring a female employee, moonlighting as an amusement-business entrepreneur, and failing to address "the proliferation of gift giving over a period of years involving Expo officials."

Many of the tokens of appreciation received by fair folks were small: lunch, fruit baskets, $25 grocery certificates. Frenette said accumulated items were distributed to employees as door prizes at a holiday gathering.

Unprofessional, certainly, but perhaps not reason to alert a prosecutor. However, records showed that the director himself enjoyed finer rewards. The concessionaire Aramark reported that it provided Frenette with $898 worth of tickets to sporting events, including passes to the 2002 Final Four in Atlanta. (Frenette denied receiving all but one pair of baseball tickets from Aramark.)

Seemingly bored, Frenette dabbled in private enterprise. He discussed (but did not commit to) working as a consultant for an amusement company that sought work from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. He was also the vice president of a small concessions company before selling his stake for $12,000, nearly double the money he had invested three years earlier. Although the company, Worldwide Concession Group, did no business with the state, Frenette neglected to disclose his interest on forms filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission.

Frenette appeared to maintain a cozy relationship with an underling, Kathie Amspaugh, a secretary promoted eventually to the position of non-fair events manager. Wireless phone records showed that Frenette called Amspaugh's residence 250 times over a two-year period. He also lent her his state-paid vehicle when he was away, a courtesy not extended to other fair employees.

In interviews with inspectors, Frenette and Amspaugh could not remember the specific reasons for their frequent calls. "Frenette admitted that because they are friends, sometimes their discussions would turn personal, but only after the business purpose of the calls was concluded," the report said. At any rate, soon after the investigation was initiated, Frenette cut a $400 check for his personal use of Expo phones.

In the annals of government officials gone bad, Frenette's sins were comparatively minor. But if he held any chance of keeping his job after the inspector general delivered his report, it withered when an Expo PR minion released a statement from commissioners that disputed the findings. "Upon initial review, we were very disappointed to find inaccuracies within each allegation and other matters in the report," the release said.

One problem: Commissioners hadn't authorized the release. Frenette had, presumably. After meeting with the commissioners a few days later, he resigned.

He remained defiant, claiming among other things that he had lost money on the concessions business. (The inspector general stood by its report, which quoted Frenette as saying that he nearly doubled his money.) "In my mind, I don't honestly feel I did anything wrong," he later told a trade magazine. "This system allows things to happen that wouldn't happen in a regular business environment and being a public official, I feel I was caught in the middle."

Caught in the middle, indeed. Rather than choose between the public and private sectors, Frenette wanted to enjoy the security of the former and the luxury of the latter.

Frenette emerged last month as the new executive director of Utah's state fair. A fair official dismissed Frenette's troubles in Ohio, equating them with the accusations of bribery that haunted organizers of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "It's a gray area," the official said.

Speaking of Utah, fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy often rely on the government they despise to support their large broods. Polygamous households, for instance, are far more likely to receive food stamps than households where husbands take only one wife.

Fundamentalists refer to the practice of accepting welfare from the intrusive power as "bleeding the beast." The freeloading friends of George Voinovich, a pious deficit hawk, seemed to have viewed their positions from a similar perspective. "If you look at the people who were around him, from beginning to end, they were systematically corrupt," says Columbus activist Bob Fitrakis, who has dogged Voinovich in various lefty publications. "The stuff they did was just so over the top."

Of course, pay-to-play and other spoils systems were not invented during the Voinovich administration. An ex-lawmaker in Illinois, where a former governor is under indictment for contract-steering, recently remarked on the local history "of looking at government as at least a marketplace to do business in, if not a bazaar where things are for sale." Eighty-two of George W. Bush's "Pioneers" -- supporters who pledged to raise at least $100,000 for the 2000 campaign -- were later appointed to government posts, ambassadorships, and cabinet positions.

As for Ohio's bazaar of the bizarre, Tim Hagan, a former county commissioner and recent rival to Bob Taft, blames one-party rule more than the rulers themselves. "If the Democrats were in control for that long, you'd have the same kind of problems," he says. "People set up their own fiefdoms and have their own political operations."

Janis Purdy, a former Citizens League director and member of the Ohio Ethics Commission, says Voinovich's "appointments, by and large, were outstanding public officials," she says.

Still, it is remarkable how scandal has left so few marks on Voinovich. Despite what Purdy says, few politicians sport such scars as the vile Paul Mifsud. Shady associates might have figured in Bob Dole's not choosing Voinovich as running mate in 1998, but a seat in the U.S. Senate does not count as a shabby consolation prize. (Washington is relatively safe from Voinovich's appointment scepter. As Gerald Austin observes: "U.S. Senators don't have patronage.")

Opinions vary as to why Voinovich retains an appearance of saintliness. Former Ohio Democratic Party boss Harry Meshel says the media treat him with kid gloves. David Leland, Meshel's successor, says voters are inured to tales of graft corrupting the system. "The American public is so cynical and so jaded, unless the money is going into their pockets, I think people just write it off as to how business is operated in this country," he says.

Indeed, while Voinovich's friends have profited from his governing, the candidate himself has always been something of a teetotaler among boozehounds. "It never stuck to him, because I don't think most people who've dealt with him, including myself, question his integrity," Hagan says. "There were people swirling around him who were swirly, and he acted when he had to act. The question has always been, Did he turn a blind eye to it or not?"

For Bob Taft, Voinovich's not-so-hawkishness has at least given him something to do. Taft has seemed to take pleasure in lopping off the heads of misbehaving officials, especially if they predated him. He gave Zomparelli an ultimatum and nudged Frenette down the plank. Columbus Dispatch politics editor Joe Hallett wrote in the fall that "Taft's unwillingness to tolerate even the appearance of a quid pro quo is refreshing."

Pay-to-play is not extinct, however. Hallett noted also that state contractors contribute generously to "issue funds" under Taft's control. Taft, in turn, uses the funds to raise his stature. Issue 1 might have been subtitled the Bob Taft Legacy Foundation.

But ethics law takes a much sterner view of baseball tickets than it does $25,000 contributions to issue advertising. As Nigel Tufnel philosophized in This Is Spinal Tap: "There's such a fine line between stupid and clever."

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