Sunday, April 23, 2000

Politics


GOP fumbles its handling of 'Team Ohio'

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        You missed a pretty good football game if you weren't in Ohio Stadium in Columbus last October when the Buckeyes edged the Purdue Boilermakers 25-22.

        Brent Johnson of the Buckeyes slapped down a 29-yard field goal attempt with 53 seconds left on the clock; Ohio State held on to win.

        Pretty good stuff, if you're a Buckeyes fan.

        Probably not worth $25,000 to see it, though.

        But that's what you would have paid if you were one of the high rollers who accepted Ohio Gov. Bob Taft's invitation to join “Team Ohio” by sending 25 grand to the Ohio Republican Party.

        Your check for $25,000 could have gotten you a seat in Mr. Taft's box at the Ohio State-Purdue game; or, if you preferred, a private briefing with Ohio's GOP congressional delegation (yawn) or a reception with Mr. and Mrs. Taft at the governor's mansion (double yawn).

        Chances are, you'd take the game, although you probably could have done a lot better with one of the scalpers outside on Lane Avenue, even though you might have ended up sitting behind a pole.

        What is this “Team Ohio” business, and why does it cost so much to join?

        And why are Ohio Republican Party leaders now wishing they had never heard of it?

        Selling “Team Ohio” memberships is one of the ways the Ohio Republican Party has been raising money for its operating account. And a good way it is, too, because, as Ohio law stands now, they never had to report where a penny of it came from.

        Political parties generally have two kinds of bank accounts. One is a campaign fund, used solely for the purpose of promoting candidates and party slates. That money is reported publicly — where it comes from and where it goes.

        An operating account is a different kettle of fish. It pays the overhead costs of running a political party — light bills, phone bills, salaries and the like.

        Last fall, while Mr. Taft was sending out his Team Ohio fund-raising letter, complete with schedule of events for donors, three other GOP office-holders — Attorney General Betty Montgomery, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell and Treasurer Joe Deters — were making phone calls to potential donors. They said they didn't know about the special offers.

        But the governor did. When news reports of the fund-raising came out last week, “Team Ohio” blew up in the face of Mr. Taft and left party officials issuing mea culpas to get the governor off the hook.

        Suddenly, some Ohio Republicans got religion on the subject of financial disclosure, calling for a change in the law so that Ohioans would know just who was paying $25,000 to watch a football game with the governor.

        It was an embarrassing episode for a political party that, at all levels, has made hay in recent years over Democratic fund-raising abuses, such as Bill Clinton turning the White House into a bed-and-breakfast by selling fat cats a night in the Lincoln bedroom.

        It's hard to take the high ground when you're playing the same game at a different level. It could make you, as Al Gore might say, an “imperfect messenger.”

        Howard Wilkinson covers politics. He can be reached at 768-8388 or at hwilkinson@enquirer.com.

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.