OPINION: Handling of ‘Joe’ investigation risky for StricklandWritten by Associated Press | | firstname.lastname@example.org
By JULIE CARR SMYTH
AP Statehouse Correspondent
There are conflicting aspects to Gov. Ted Strickland’s treatment of his human services chief: the political and the practical.
Ohio’s government watchdog, Inspector General Tom Charles, found Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley improperly used state computers to find personal information on the Toledo man who during the presidential campaign came to be known as “Joe the Plumber.” The Democratic governor then suspended Jones-Kelley for a month without pay.
Charles’ investigation also found that Jones-Kelley conducted improper political fundraising activity for Barack Obama, now the president-elect, over state e-mail.
Politically, Strickland took a significant risk by not firing Jones-Kelley, said Grant Neely, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.
The fact that Strickland led a near Democratic sweep of state offices in 2006 on a pledge to clean up the Republicans’ “culture of corruption” will almost certainly be used in his next campaign to paint him as a hypocrite, Neely said. As will the fact that Strickland all but forced scandal-scarred then-Attorney General Marc Dann to step down earlier this year.
“He might be misreading what people think about this issue of unethical-slash-illegal behavior among elected officials,” Neely said. “People in Ohio – stemming from the 2006 election and the problems the Republicans had, on through the Marc Dann case – are really tired of scandal in their state government.”
State Sen. Tim Grendell, a Chesterland Republican, is among the many Republicans who are openly angry.
“She should be fired,” Grendell said. “This is the party that every time a Republican stubbed their toe for the past four years they screamed, ‘Culture of corruption… How can you allow the public trust to be abused this way?’ And now you’ve got someone who breached the public trust and misused her public authority and public property. She doesn’t deserve her agency director’s job.”
Calls by Republicans for Jones-Kelley to be canned aren’t likely to let up any time soon. In fact, they will probably grow louder – and perhaps more formal – as the GOP-led Legislature returns to session in December.
Yet Charles’ investigation could not confirm that Jones-Kelley accessed the records of “Joe the Plumber,” whose real name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, with political gain in mind. His report also indicated that Jones-Kelley had used her personal Blackberry to send the Obama fundraising requests – though it was synced up to state equipment.
In tandem with disciplining her, Strickland issued a management directive to all the state agencies, boards and commissions he administers laying out the proper uses of state databases.
The governor’s practical purpose in retaining Jones-Kelley came through in what he did next: Strickland told the public she is a pro whom he still trusts.
“Helen Jones-Kelley has dedicated her life to helping the most vulnerable among us. She is recognized nationally as an expert in the field of foster care and she has worked commendably for many years as an advocate for children, families and workers in her native Montgomery County and the state of Ohio. I value her contributions to the state and her local community.”
With this approach, Strickland may have been applying his credentials as a psychologist and ordained minister. At the very least, he was taking off his political hat and putting on his managerial one.
With so much work to be done- including fixing the unconstitutional school-funding system, propping up the state’s ailing economy and crafting his second budget – Strickland chose not to douse the morale of the troops. In this case, the troops being fellow cabinet directors who may have viewed Jones-Kelley’s transgressions as stupid but innocent mistakes.
It will be up to prosecutors whether they were anything more.
But Neely says the approach is a gamble.
“He’s now given Republicans something to go after him with,” he said.
Grendell believes Strickland’s office released its statement on Jones-Kelley late on the day of Charles’ report in order to minimize the incident’s impact among average Ohioans.
“They play the news cycle better than a concert violinist plays a Stradivarius,” he said. “They drop the release when all the news media is going home and the news cycle is over in the hopes this will be reported as serious disciplinary action when, in fact, it is a slap on the wrist.”
Neely said the Jones-Kelley issue is different from the Dann scandal, which involved an official elected by Ohio voters. Jones-Kelley is a Strickland appointee.
“If there’s any kind of backlash from the Ohio public, Strickland’s going to have to deal with that himself,” he said. “When you’re the opposing party, you’re going to start with Marc Dann, you’re going to talk about an agency director doing improper things, and you’ll add whatever happens next. Odds are, there will be something.”