Funny timing on Voinovich investigation

Monday, December 14, 1998

Nobody on the Ohio Elections Commission wears clodhoppers and works full time on a farm. Of this I am certain. Otherwise, they would know that you close the barn door before, not after, the horse escapes.

The horse in question is Gov. George Voinovich. He's getting ready to bolt for Washington, D.C. From the way things are heating up for the governor, he's getting out while the getting's good. Last week, the elections commission voted unanimously to hire a special investigator to look into charges the governor violated state campaign finance laws during the 1994 election.

If the investigation finds that he used creative accounting to pay $60,000 to his brother and a lobbyist, Gov. Voinovich could be fined $10,000 and removed from office.

The governor can afford to pay the fine. And I'll bet he's not staying up nights worrying about being kicked out of the governor's mansion.

Gov. Voinovich is Gov. Short-timer. He leaves office Dec. 31 for his new seat in the U.S. Senate.

What? Him worry?

Statehouse insiders tell me the governor is in good spirits and not sweating the investigation. No wonder. The elections commission has yet to hire a special investigator. And the investigator's report won't be due for 60 to 90 days after he's hired. By then, the governor will be long gone.

I keep trying to make sense of the case and figure out the slow-moving system for examining violations of campaign laws. The whole thing makes me scratch my head.

"Join the crowd," said Phil Richter, the commission's executive director. The entire Voinovich affair has been a head-scratcher for the commission of three Democrats, three Republicans and one independent.

Plot shifts

The case has the makings of a made-for-TV movie. A popular governor and his brother allegedly plot to funnel $60,000 in campaign funds to the brother and a lobbyist.

The Voinovich brothers' doings surfaced in grand jury testimony given in September 1997. But an official complaint about the scheme was not filed with the commission until late October 1998. That was just before the election. But the allegations did not keep the two-term governor from winning a seat in the Senate.

Since the election, people involved in the case have changed their stories. Memories have faded. So now, an investigation is in the works to get at the truth.

The commission could not have acted any sooner. It can investigate only after receiving a complaint.

Established in 1995, the commission receives 1,000 complaints a year. The great majority deal with candidates filing campaign finance reports late or not at all. Only "three or four or five complaints a year," as Mr. Richter put it, "allege some type of concealment of funds. So this is very rare."

The Statehouse insiders I spoke with think this investigation, while rare, could have far-reaching effects on campaign finance reform. Neil Clark, a Republican consultant, sees the case generating a renewed push in state government for "more campaign watchdogs. Rather than watching what is spent on TV, radio and newspaper ads, they would look into how much was paid to, for example, a consultant, how the money was paid and where they paid it.

"If some kind of reform does not come from this case," he added, "then Voinovich is gone with no pain and we're left with no gain." Maybe. Maybe not.

If the elections commission discovers that the governor violated campaign finance laws, its findings will be turned over to prosecutors for possible legal action.

At the very least, the investigation could help the governor in his new office. If the impeachment proceedings in the House become an impeachment trial in the Senate, Sen. Voinovich will be a member of the president's jury.

He could excuse himself because he, too, has been living under the cloud of an investigation. Or he could empathize with the president and tell him, "I feel your pain."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.