Investigator: Former governor Taft ‘not corrupt’Written by Associated Press | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The lead ethics investigator in the historic conviction of former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft in 2005 says the Republican politician is “not fundamentally corrupt.”
Ohio Ethics Commission executive director David Freel said Taft, who became the state’s first governor convicted of a crime, was dedicated to public service.
Freel made his unusually candid remarks in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of his Dec. 31 retirement.
“He is not fundamentally corrupt. He was fundamentally a true public servant,” Freel said. “But the commission had to make a very difficult decision, made it across partisan lines, made it across personal lines. Many of the commission members knew him, we knew his staff, we knew his staff very well, so it was one of the most difficult judgments that were made (in my tenure).”
Freel, 59, is in a role that has put him at the heart of many of the biggest state government corruption cases of the past 16 years, including those involving past governors’ administrations and a state attorney general.
His office advises, teaches, monitors and investigates ethics law compliance at executive branch agencies across the state, including in cities, counties and school boards.
Taft, the great-grandson of a president, pleaded no contest to ethics charges for failing to list golf outings paid for by lobbyists and other gifts on required disclosure forms. Those omissions came to light during a state investment scandal surrounding a politically generous rare coin dealer.
After his conviction in a municipal court crowded with accused drunk drivers and parole violators, Taft publicly apologized to Ohioans for what he did wrong.
Freel contrasted Taft’s response with the lack of remorse of other high-profile figures — including ousted former Attorney General Marc Dann — the commission has investigated since he was hired in 1994.
The independent, bipartisan panel picks its own director. It was created in 1974 to police corruption in public office in the wake of Watergate, the Nixon-era break-in and cover-up scandal that had shattered public confidence in government.
“What I think is a great tribute to former Gov. Taft is that he acknowledged his wrongdoing and stood up and took the punishment that he had administered or meted out to his senior staff and other department heads,” Freel said.
Dann, a Youngstown Democrat, was forced to resign in 2008 after sexual harassment allegations against an aide exposed an underbelly of misconduct at his office. After Dann pleaded guilty to making improper payments to two aides and failing to properly disclose campaign expenses, Freel described him as one “who all the way out of the courtroom still argued that he had not done anything wrong.”
Dann, who has criticized Freel’s handling of both his own case and Taft’s, declined to comment on Freel’s characterization of him. A telephone message left for Taft was not returned.
Freel said his zeal for government integrity came from a church-elder grandfather ostracized for standing against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s in northeastern Ohio; an Irish Catholic father who faced prejudice and government corruption; and a Jewish father-in-law who fled persecution in Nazi Germany.
“They really made a strong impression on me about fairness in institutions and about accountability in whatever role you’re in,” he said.
Freel has racked up some hefty statistics in his time at the commission: 10,500 allegations and complaints reviewed; 2,025 investigations conducted; hundreds of enforcement actions taken; and nearly $1.7 million in restitution ordered from public officials by the courts.
“This business of ethics is difficult because most of us do not recognize our own self-interest,” he said. “And so what is difficult is to remind those in public service that it’s OK to have conflicts to their interest, but it’s not OK to act on them. It’s not OK to hire your kids, it’s not OK to award a contract to some business that you’ve got a 50-percent ownership in, or it’s not OK just to disclose those who give you gifts and then to corruptly administer contracts to them.”
Longtime Ethics Commission member Merom Brachman said a majority of the cases Freel has handled were not splashy like the Coingate scandal that caught up Taft and led to 18 other convictions.
“He has had the patience to dig into those details without reference to headlines,” Brachman said.
Freel lamented as he leaves his post at a wide-ranging government corruption probe that’s so far led to 36 convictions in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County — which he called “the poster child for unethical behavior.” The Ethics Commission is tangentially involved in the case.
“It’s disturbing to think people believe it’s public service. It’s not public service,” Freel said. “In that area, they’ve lost the notion that the public interest supersedes their own self-interest or their partisan or political interests to award friends and punish enemies.”