COLUMBUS, Ohio – Gov. Bob Taft (search), a stickler for the rules who pushed for high ethical standards in his office, was accused Wednesday of failing to report 52 gifts, including dinners, golf games and professional hockey tickets, becoming the first Ohio governor charged with a crime.
The gifts were worth about $5,800 and occurred from 2001 through 2004, prosecutors said. The charges come in the midst of a state investment scandal nagging Taft's administration and the ruling Republican Party.
Taft, a Republican and member of a distinguished U.S. political family, could be fined $1,000 and sentenced to six months in jail on each count if convicted, though time behind bars was considered unlikely.
The governor will respond publicly on Thursday and is not planning to resign, spokesman Mark Rickel (search) said. Prosecutors said they expected Taft to appear in court Thursday but declined to say whether a plea agreement was in the works.
Franklin County (search) Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said the gifts included two golf outings worth $100 each paid for by embattled coin dealer Tom Noe.
Noe is a Republican fundraiser whose $50 million investment of state money in rare coins launched the scandal that led to Taft's revelation that he failed to report golf outings. Taft said the omissions were accidental.
State law requires officeholders to report all gifts worth more than $75 if the donor wasn't reimbursed.
A state task force and the Ohio Ethics Commission were still investigating public employees for similar offenses, and O'Brien said he expected more serious felony charges to be filed, although not against Taft.
"We would like to move on and have the inspector general and law enforcement focus their attention on more serious crimes that we are trying to investigate instead of spending all our time on golf matters," O'Brien said.
Taft, 63 and nearing the end of his second term, becomes the highest-ranking official to be charged in the ballooning state investment scandal. Brian Hicks, his former chief of staff, was convicted of an ethics violation in July and fined $1,000.
The charges are another blow to the GOP in the Republican-controlled state that won President Bush re-election. Democrats have found hope for the next election in the investment scandal and surprisingly close race for an open seat in southwest Ohio's 2nd Congressional District, a GOP stronghold that the Republican candidate only barely managed to win.
Taft's great-grandfather was President William Howard Taft -- who later was a chief justice -- and both his father and grandfather were U.S. senators from Ohio.
Taft's golf outings were a break from the pressure of work, said Hicks, who golfed frequently with the governor.
"I don't believe for one minute that anybody got a contract, got an investment, got a policy decision made because they played golf with the governor," Hicks said.
Taft spent Wednesday in his office, announcing the signing of two minor bills in a statement that came less than an hour before the charges were revealed. He returned to the governor's residence without making any comment.
The charges were all the more striking because of Taft's reputation as an ethics cheerleader.
Three months ago he stressed at an ethics conference the importance of ethical behavior for public employees.
"Public employees can enjoy entertainment, such as golf or dining out, with persons working for a regulated company, or one doing business with the state, ONLY if they fully pay their own way," he said in the May 11 speech at Xavier University.
After he was sworn in to office just after midnight on Jan. 11, 1999, Taft called his family legacy "a tradition of integrity" and "ethical conduct in office." At his first Cabinet meeting, he hammered home the importance of ethics. In October 1999, Taft ordered his top staffers and agency directors to take ethics training every two years.
In 2000, Taft weathered criticism over a fundraising letter he signed that promised meetings with himself and a briefing with congressional members in exchange for a $25,000 pledge.
Democrats, who control no state offices in Ohio, were predictable in their criticism of the governor. But Republicans also expressed anger at the leader of their party.
"I am disappointed in the governor's failure to report these outings," said Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. "He set a high ethical standard for his administration, and in this case he failed to meet that standard."
Other Ohio governors have come under investigation, including Republican George Voinovich, investigated for unproven allegations he laundered campaign money, and Democrat Richard Celeste, whose connections to a contributor who owned the failed Home State Savings Bank were examined.
Taft released records Aug. 5 showing he accepted invitations to 21 golf outings since 1999, including a 2001 outing with Noe, who has contributed $22,190 to Taft's political campaigns, state records show.
Taft's golf partners have included John Snow, then the head of transportation company CSX Corp. and now the U.S. Treasury secretary, and Tony Alexander, president and chief executive of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. The records did not show who paid.
Three former directors under Taft have resigned following accusations they were treated to golf outings by companies that did business with their agencies. A May 2001 Ohio Ethics Commission memo specified that golf rounds should be reported as gifts.
Some Ohioans were ready to forgive Taft for what they considered a minor mistake, while others weren't so charitable.
"He should get thrown out. He's been a foul ball ever since he's been in there," said Steve Moss, 83, as he waited for a bus at a stop near Cleveland's Public Square. "He's been missing everything. He's not doing anything for the people."
Governors around the country have faced criminal charges before, in many cases more serious allegations than Taft's case.
In Illinois, Gov. George Ryan decided not to seek a second term amid a corruption scandal. In Connecticut, Gov. John G. Rowland pleaded guilty last year to trading access to his office for more than $100,000 in vacations, charter airline trips to Las Vegas and home repairs.
Taft was elected governor in 1998, following the most expensive campaign in state history, in which he and his chief opponent each spent $10 million. Persuaded by the GOP to avoid a primary fight for governor with Voinovich in 1990, Taft settled for secretary of state and easily won re-election in a Republican sweep in 1994.