COLUMBUS, Ohio – Gov. Bob Taft (search) became the first Ohio governor found guilty of a crime Thursday as he pleaded no contest to charges that he broke state ethics law by failing to report golf outings and other gifts.
Taft told Franklin County Municipal Judge Mark Froehlich he chose not to plead guilty but was taking responsibility for ethics lapses.
The judge found him guilty and fined him the maximum $1,000 for each of four misdemeanor counts. As expected, no jail time was ordered; the charges had carried a maximum of six months on each count.
Taft, a great-grandson of President and later Chief Justice William Howard Taft, nodded as the charges were read, and his wife, Hope, sat behind him showing no emotion.
"The message is simply clear: no one is above the law in the state of Ohio, and even the governor can be charged and convicted of a criminal offense," the judge told Taft.
The second-term Republican said that as governor he expected all state workers to follow state ethics laws.
"In this instance I have failed to live up to those high expectations," he said. "I accept full responsibility for this mistake and I am very sorry."
The judge also ordered him to apologize: "From the shores of Lake Erie to the banks of the Ohio River, I want them to know that you are sorry for what you have done."
Taft's voice cracked as he spoke later at a news conference.
"There are no words to express the deep remorse that I feel over the embarrassment that I have caused for my administration and the people of the state of Ohio," Taft said.
The governor has fired others over ethics violations, but he said he would not resign, saying he still can be an effective governor in the 16 months left in his term.
A state task force and the Ohio Ethics Commission are investigating public employees for similar offenses and Prosecutor Ron O'Brien has said he expects more serious felony charges to be brought, although not against Taft.
A no-contest plea is not an admission of guilt but means the defendant will not fight the charges. The judge's action finding him guilty is a routine step in Ohio in no-contest pleas.
Defense attorney William Meeks said Taft has repaid people for the gifts.
Taft was charged Wednesday with failing to report 52 gifts worth nearly $6,000, including dinners, golf games and professional hockey tickets over four years.
O'Brien said the gifts included two golf outings worth $100 each paid for by coin dealer Tom Noe (search), a Republican fundraiser whose $50 million investment of state money in rare coins launched the scandal that led to the accusations against Taft.
State law requires officeholders to report all gifts worth more than $75 if the donor wasn't reimbursed.
Taft said the golf outings were mostly weekend events with friends. He said his office had no system to record such gifts, so they were not included on annual disclosure forms, and he did not learn until this summer that the Ethics Commission requires those events to be reported if paid for by others.
Taft said when he became aware of the errors, he notified the commission and cooperated fully with its investigation.
The alleged ethics violations against Taft are another blow to the GOP in the Republican-controlled state that won President Bush re-election. Democrats have found hope for the 2006 midterm elections in the investment scandal and a surprisingly close congressional race this month for an open seat in a GOP stronghold.
"It is clear that Bob Taft and his friends throughout state government are so caught up in this scandal that they are no longer paying attention the very real challenges facing Ohioans," said Chris Redfern, the top Democrat in the House.
Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006, said the charges are part of a "culture of corruption" in Ohio.
Taft's golf partners included John Snow (search), 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.
Some partners have said Taft paid for the golf; others have said they picked up the tab.
Taft's former chief of staff Brian Hicks pleaded no contest last month to failing to report stays at Noe's million-dollar Florida home. He was fined $1,000.
Noe has acknowledged that up to $13 million is missing from the rare coins fund, and Attorney General Jim Petro has accused him of stealing as much as $4 million.
Taft was elected in 1998, following the most expensive campaign in state history. He also had been secretary of state, a state representative and a county commissioner in his hometown of Cincinnati.
Taft's distinguished political relatives also includes his father and grandfather, who were both U.S. senators from Ohio.