Aborted tobacco sting at Ohio governor's home produces enduring political fallout

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — While the governor entertained John Glenn at his official residence in a posh suburb, law enforcers planned to descend on a supplier of contraband tobacco skulking around the perimeter in an attempt to drop goods to a prison inmate working there.

It was a scene Gov. Ted Strickland's handlers just couldn't fathom. When they pieced together the scenario looming that January weekend, they called off the sting in a flurry that's since been described by legislators as a "cluster" of such confusion it rivaled "Hogan's Heroes."

The public safety director in charge that weekend lost her job Tuesday at the hands of the Republican-led state Senate, but the fallout is not over for Strickland, a Democrat seeking re-election in a closely watched contest against former GOP Congressman John Kasich.

A state inspector general's investigation found that the now-ousted director, Cathy Collins-Taylor, obstructed the probe and lied under oath. Though Collins-Taylor vigorously fought the findings, they had already made it by the end of last week into an anti-Strickland commercial produced by the Republican Governors Association.

Democrats point to the ad as proof that months of hearings over a single weekend in Collins-Taylor's 31-year career were little more than political theater aimed at Strickland's defeat in November. They staged protests during a Senate inquiry into the issue and argued that witnesses who could have backed up Collins-Taylor's story were never called.

Investigators found Strickland played no role in the winter weekend's decision-making. But their report concluded Collins-Taylor called off the sting to protect him from political embarrassment, not to protect his safety, as they had claimed. The case has been forwarded to prosecutors for a possible follow-up.

It remains to be seen whether the scandal will stick to Strickland, whose popularity has already suffered amid historic jobless rates, but governors are among the most vulnerable of Democratic incumbents this year, said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver who follows issues surrounding governors.

"In the last two years, you had substantial downturns in just about all states. Governors are having to do more with less, and they're being blamed not only for the economic hard times, but for the cuts they've had to make in areas like education and social safety net services," he said. "Throw in a scandal? It's difficult to say."

The inmate-worker program was begun almost a half-century before Strickland took office in 2007 and allows low-risk inmates nearing release to perform tasks such as tending gardens, handling minor maintenance and staffing state dinners.

A probe by Inspector General Tom Charles after the aborted raid found the inmates working at the home had ready access to hand tools such as knives, axes and chain saws and relatively free rein at the governor's 3-acre property in Bexley, a Columbus suburb with million-dollar homes.

That mobility contributed to the problem with tobacco contraband, the report found.

Loose leaf tobacco has fetched up to $300 a can and cigarette butts up to $25 behind bars since Ohio prisons banned smoking last year. Inmates would pick up drops near a perimeter wall, stash them in a bathroom ceiling and take them via body cavity back into prison.

A huge stash of tobacco was found on the site after the sting was made public. But prisoner misbehavior is in some ways only a minor element.

The inspector general's report said high-ranking public safety officials called off the sting to avoid embarrassing Strickland as the governor and his wife hosted a dinner that Sunday night with Glenn, a former U.S. senator and the first American to orbit the Earth; his wife, Annie; Strickland Chief of Staff John Haseley; and Haseley's 8-year-old daughter.

Safety authorities learned about the contraband operation from an intercepted letter that told them the woman planned to drop a delivery the night of the dinner, the report said. The package was to be picked up later by an inmate and delivered to Pickaway Correctional Institution south of Columbus, the report said.

The public safety officials gave the directive to find the woman and warn her off, the report found. She was never arrested.

"I am saddened that I will not continue to work with this agency and continue the path I started," Collins-Taylor said in a statement after her confirmation was dramatically rejected. "But most of all, I am saddened that recent events have overshadowed the work being done at the Department each and every day."

Strickland has said he believed officials acted in good faith but that anything meant to spare him embarrassment was unnecessary. His detractors paint it as further evidence for their arguments that he has overly centralized and politicized Ohio government.

Collins-Taylor, her agency and some newspapers in the state criticized Charles' effort as biased, questioning his possible motives for wanting to discredit her. Charles, retired from the highway patrol, had advanced a different candidate than Collins-Taylor chose to lead the highway patrol, one who most likely would have promoted his wife, an officer on the force. Democrats in the Ohio House pushed a bill requiring the inspector general to recuse himself from investigations where his or his family member's employers are involved.

Strickland stood behind Collins-Taylor amid the sting controversy, spending precious political capital headed into the November election and taking a risk by sending her up for confirmation. The governor's nominees for the post generally begin work upon appointment, and they are rarely rejected.

With a stint as a prison psychologist among his credentials, Strickland has stood behind Ohio's work program for inmates at the residence. He expanded the number of low-risk prisoners participating and in 2008 thwarted an effort by corrections officials to beef up the program's security.

It is not the first time a governor has grappled with controversy involving such programs.

Then-South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow's skirting of rules was blamed for allowing two female inmates to hold a clandestine party at his state residence in 2000. Janklow won his bid for Congress that year.

In South Carolina, then-Gov. Jim Hodges fired his prisons director in 2001 after guards allowed inmates working at his official residence to have sex in the basement. Hodges lost his re-election bid the following year to Mark Sanford — who shared Kasich's credential as a former congressman.