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JobsOhio to refund more than $1 million to state; GOP rift continues

JobsOhio agreed Tuesday to turn over previously unreleased financial records in response to a subpoena and repay millions in taxpayer money used as part of the launch for the state’s private economic development arm.

The development did nothing to quell a simmering dispute between Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, who filed the subpoena, and fellow Republican Gov. John Kasich, who made JobsOhio a signature issue during his first two years in office.

Kasich and Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder blasted Yost Tuesday, saying his efforts would kill job growth in the state.

Batchelder called Yost’s actions “erratic.”

“The auditor’s attempt to re-write the law to make JobsOhio a slow, bureaucratic public body again will kill JobsOhio and its job creation efforts,” Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said in a statement on Tuesday. “And if companies that accept economic development incentives fear that government auditors will seize and disclose their confidential business records, then that will kill job growth in the state of Ohio.”

JobsOhio President and Chief Investment Officer John Minor in a letter to Yost called the auditor’s March 6 subpoena for JobsOhio’s financial records an “unwarranted and unlawful governmental intrusion into the affairs of a private-non-profit corporation.”

Even so, JobsOhio turned over records on Tuesday morning, two hours before a deadline, in a move Minor said was “voluntary, in the interest of further transparency.”

Office staffers are reviewing the records to see whether JobsOhio turned over everything Yost asked for, said Carrie Bartunek, a spokeswoman for the auditor.

Asked about the timing of the announcement that JobsOhio would return the public money, spokeswoman Laura Jones said it’s something JobsOhio officials have been planning for some time.

Earlier this year, JobsOhio finalized the sale of $1.5 billion in bonds backed by profits from state liquor stores, a move which is expected to bring $100 million annually to the organization.

“Now that JobsOhio has that reliable source of revenue, we can refund those dollars,” Jones said. “We were set up to be a private entity, and this act of refunding those dollars is in keeping with that.”

The exact amount of public money JobsOhio received remains unclear, beyond $1 million in start-up funds the legislature approved in 2011 after it created JobsOhio. But it appears JobsOhio gained access to up to $6.5 million in state grants after it acquired another state-created non-profit that had a pre-existing agreement with the Ohio Development Services Agency to receive taxpayer money.

The Dayton Daily News requested the exact amount in state grants JobsOhio received nearly two weeks ago, but has yet to receive a definitive answer from Kasich’s office.

Addressing reporters Tuesday, Ohio House Speaker Bill Batchelder, R-Medina, called Yost’s actions “erratic,” according to a spokesman.

“This is really an unprecedented move by the auditor to get this kind of information,” said the spokesman, Mike Dittoe. “On top of that, it sets up a slippery slope for this kind of process moving forward.”

Yost has said JobsOhio should be audited because of its close ties with government and public revenue sources, including the liquor sales proceeds. While he was not made available for interviews on Tuesday, Yost was conciliatory in a written statement, saying he was “pleased” that JobsOhio voluntarily responded to the subpoena.

“Governor John Kasich and I share a love for this great state and a passion to see a vibrant private sector creating jobs,” Yost said. “JobsOhio has already achieved great success in bringing jobs to our state, and I expect that momentum to continue.”

Kasich, with the help of the Republican-controlled legislature, created JobsOhio in 2011 to replace a government agency that promoted economic development in Ohio. It is not directly run by the governor’s office, but Kasich appoints its board members.

As a private non-profit, JobsOhio is not subject to Ohio’s public records laws, which has led critics to attack it for what they say is a lack of public accountability and potential for corruption.

Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, a liberal public policy group that is challenging JobsOhio’s legality, said Tuesday’s developments were just another example of the organization’s convoluted setup.

“It’s a very complicated transaction. It’s complicated for one reason only: the governor wanted to make JobsOhio closed to public scrutiny,” Rothenberg said.

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