Wednesday, August 17, 2005

 

Three more likely targets of ethics charges

Now with Taft's charges out of the way, the rumor mills are abuzz about with questions of "who's next?"

The names we hear mentioned with a great deal of certainty are three former members of Taft's administration, Doug Moorman, H. Douglas Talbott and Jim Mermis.

These are not familiar names to most Ohioans. Think about two of them this way: If Bob Taft and Brian Hicks were the barkers in the Taft administration's corruption carnival, Moorman and Talbott were the ticket taker and usher, respectively. Ya' just couldn't couldn't get in and know what kind of seat your ticket bought ya without 'em.

Moorman's pedigree is that early on he was a top staffer to Mike DeWine while Dewine was in congress. Later he became chief of staff for one of Taft's lieutenant governors, Maureen O'Connor. Moormann eventually joined Taft's staff where he gained the a key job as a liaison the departments of development, transportation, taxation, PUCO, the Industrial Commission and - ta dah! - the Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

Moormann also had the plum job of liaison to Ohio's business community. Moorman eventually left his government positions and took up another cherry job: He became lobbyist for the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.

While one would assume the Moorman, income-wise, was better off than 99.5% of Ohioans, he apparently couldn't resist some "discounted" financial aid. The Dispatch reported that Moorman took a $5,000 "loan" from Tom Noe.

Talbott, we seem to recall, was a Republican operative who was quickly promoted under the Voinovich administration to be deputy director of the state's Department of Development. Voinovich, and later Taft, peppered their agencies with "deputy directors" who had absolutely no management or public policy experience. Their chief skill was political loyalty and the eagerness to twist an arm or two.

When Taft came to office, Talbott was made put in charge of reviewing and recommending appointments to state boards, commissions and other top positions on behalf of the Governor. In the pay-to-play game, Talbott was the pivot man.

And Talbott would have been the go-to man when Tom Noe was getting his appointments to the Turnpike Commission and the Board of Regents.

Like a lot of political hacks, Talbott went on to lobbying for the private sector, first working for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and later as president of Hurst Government Consulting.

Talbott must have been even greedier than Moorman. The Dispatch says he took a $39,000 "loan" from Noe.

[UPDATE] - The Blade has the best summary of Talbott's political career and Noe shenanigans here.

Jim Mermis is something of a less-known guy among politicos. As we recall, he served in the late 1990s under Taft as chief of the former Ohio Bureau of Employment Services. When OBES and ODHS merged, Taft appointed him to be Assistant Administrator of BWC and one of Jim Conrad's top cohorts.

Like Moorman and Talbott, Mermis later entered the lobbying field as president of Capital Consulting, but continued to collect chits from Taft. As recently as March, Taft appointed Mermis to a paid position on the Ohio Dietics Board.

The Blade reported that Mermis was a regular in the Tom Noe "Supper Club".

Despite his relatively low profile it's worth looking at some of Mermis's top lobbying clients. Take, for example, the accounting firm Plante Moran. At the risk of seeming like we're playing a game of "7 degrees of Tom Noe", it is an odd coincidence that Plante Moran became caught up in the Noe controversy. From an article that originally appeared in the Dispatch:
The bureau consistently has said it was never told Noe was investing in such items, but Plante & Moran, the certified-public-accounting firm Noe hired to review the coin-fund books each year, included 15 collectibles worth about $552,000 in its June 30, 2003, inventory for the bureau.

Bureau spokesman Jeremy Jackson said the agency expected that Plante & Moran would have accounted for all assets in the two coin funds Noe managed. Plante & Moran said it wasn’t asked to do that as part of its agreement with Noe.
Eerie, huh?

But another of Mermis's clients suggests a great deal more about how the pay-to-play game got played. Athersys, is a Cleveland-based biotech firm.

As reported in the Dispatch, Gov. Taft suddenly became interested in Athersys's well-being:
Although Gov. Bob Taft insists he wasn’t involved in Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation investments, he lobbied aggressively to put state money with one company — Athersys Inc., a Cleveland biotechnology firm.

In early 2003, Taft made it clear, inside and outside the governor’s office, that he wanted an investment deal with Athersys "done and done quickly."

James Conrad, former bureau administrator, said Athersys was "the only time (Taft) ever called on specific investments and, to my memory, it was the only time I saw the volatile Taft anger."

Conrad presumed Taft was so forceful because he had touted Athersys in his 2002 State of the State speech and he wanted to see the company thrive instead of bolting the state for Minnesota or North Carolina as threatened. At the time, the company was seeking $100 million from investors, in part to fund stem-cell research.
Taft also strongly lobbyied the states pension funds to invest in Athersys. Luckily, they declined. Even BWC put a halt to its plans to invest in Athersys after the company indicated it was moving out of state.

But why all the attention to Athersys? The Democrats offered a clue:
Administration officials say they were just trying to keep a high-tech firm in Ohio. But Democrats argue that Taft lobbied for Athersys because its top officials contributed $10,500 to his 2002 gubernatorial re-election campaign and the company was an early partner with the governor’s pet Third Frontier project.
And, it's such a small world! Guess who else entered the Athersys controversy?
Doug Moormann, a former Taft executive assistant, reported to the governor on Jan. 24, 2003, that he met with bureau staff to "discuss ways in which state investment dollars could be directed toward a company like Athersys."
So, here we have Tom Noe, Talbott, Moorman and Mermis hanging out at steakhouses together on a regular basis for years. Think there was any opportunity for them to cook up any pay-to-play mischief? We do.

Perhaps it's such a small world that Moorman, Talbott and Mermis will very soon have the next re-union of the Noe Supper Club before prosecutors and a judge in a courtroom in Columbus.

And, after that, it's most people's belief that the IRS is hovering around the scene waiting like a vulture, ready to swoop down and begin discussions about some serious ClubFed time.

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