TOLEDO, Ohio – A prominent GOP fundraiser at the center of an Ohio political scandal changed his plea to guilty Wednesday on federal charges that he illegally funneled about $45,000 to President Bush's re-election campaign.
Tom Noe, a rare-coin dealer, still is charged in an ill-fated $50 million coin investment that he managed for the state workers' compensation fund. The investment scandal has been a major embarrassment for Ohio's ruling Republicans and given Democrats a better shot at winning state offices this year, including the governor's office that has been under GOP control since 1991.
Once a powerful political figure who also raised money for a slew of Ohio Republicans, Noe admitted arranging a contribution scheme to fulfill his promise to generate $50,000 for a Bush fundraiser. He had asked on May 10 that he be allowed to change his not guilty plea.
He said Wednesday that he decided to plead guilty to "spare my family and many dear friends" the ordeal of a trial.
Noe, who lives in Florida, remained free on bond, and a date for sentencing was not set. Prosecutors said they would recommend a sentence of 2 years to 2 1/2 years total for all three charges. The maximum sentence is five years in prison on each of the three counts and a combined $950,000 in fines.
Noe, 51, was charged with exceeding federal campaign contribution limits, using others to make the contributions, and causing the Bush campaign to submit a false campaign-finance statement.
Federal prosecutors said in October the case was the largest campaign money-laundering scheme prosecuted under the 2002 campaign finance reform law, which set limits on donations.
Prosecutors said Noe gave $45,400 directly or indirectly to 24 friends and associates, who made the campaign contributions in their own names, allowing him to skirt the $2,000 limit on individual contributions.
Noe wrote several checks just under the cap to avoid suspicion, according to prosecutors. All of the checks were written in the eight days leading up to a fundraiser in October 2003 at a downtown Columbus hotel.
A year later, Bush's victory in Ohio gave him the White House. Authorities say his campaign committee was unaware of the alleged contribution scheme.
Investigators say Noe persuaded his friends and associates to fill out contribution cards and forms falsely certifying they were making the contributions themselves. The result was that Bush's campaign committee unknowingly submitted a false campaign report to the Federal Election Commission, the indictment said.
Among the people who donated money that came from Noe were several Toledo area officeholders and a former mayor. A lawyer for three said they were not in danger of being charged because they cooperated with investigators.
Investigators have not been able to find out if Noe used money from the state coin fund for campaign contributions.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said the change of plea does not affect the state's case. Noe has pleaded not guilty to a charge of stealing at least $1 million of the coin investment. The trial is scheduled for Aug. 29.
Investigations into Noe's coin investment, first reported in April 2005 by The Blade newspaper, led to Gob. Bob Taft's no contest plea and conviction in August to charges he accepted golf outings and other gifts that he didn't report.
Noe personally contributed more than $105,000 to Republicans including Bush and Taft during the 2004 campaign.
The Bush-Cheney campaign donated $6,000 it received from Noe and his wife, Bernadette, to charity. The rest of the money donated at the Bush fundraiser in October 2003 remains with the Republican Party.
Noe's work for the GOP allowed him to meet with the president during several of Bush's visits to Ohio. Noe and his wife also attended an inaugural ball in 2005.
Noe also is well-known among state politicians and won political appointments to state boards that oversee the Ohio Turnpike and Ohio's public universities. He resigned last May after questions were raised about the state's investments in rare coins.