Nearly half of the Ohio Ethics Commission’s caseload this year dealt with concerns about conflict of interest by public officials, but many of those under scrutiny are exempt from publicly disclosing their personal business interests, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
Charter schools and township trustees are exempt from filing financial disclosure forms, though they accounted for 24 percent of the 185 cases handled by the ethics commission this year, according to state records obtained by the Daily News. Is ethics form too intrusive? Reporter fills one out and posts it online.
“I think that would make sense if you apply one standard, you apply it across the board,” said state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering.
Lehner has twice tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation applying the same disclosure rules to townships that apply to cities. When presented with the newspaper’s findings, she said charter schools should be included as well.
Ohio Ethics Commission Director Paul Nick also supports expanding the requirement. It would identify potential conflicts of interest, serve a flag to the school or township and alert the public, he said. The filing fees — which range from $30 to $95 depending on the office — contribute 31 percent of the Ethics Commission’s $2.2 million budget.
But groups representing townships and charter schools say the requirements would be both unnecessary and intrusive, possibly dissuading people from holding office. “People are going to say it’s not worth it, if I have to disclose who I owe money to, who owes me money, who holds my mortgage, what my investments are,” said Matt DeTemple, director of the Ohio Townships Association.
The four page ethics form includes questions about the source of the officials’ income, businesses owned, names of family members, gifts received and debts owed to and by the official. Not all ethics forms are public. State employees and some boards submit confidential ethics forms that are kept on file and reviewed only by the Ethics Commission.
Lehner sat on the Ethics Commission in the 1990s and said the issue that township trustees are exempt from filing repeatedly came up. “I just can’t find any rational reason why you would exempt this group of public officials,” she said.
She has tried twice to pass legislation requiring townships with more than 5,000 people to file forms, making the rules uniform with cities and villages. The first time, in 2011, the measure passed the Senate and died in the Ohio House. This year she put it in the budget bill, but it was stripped out amid opposition form the Ohio Township Association.
DeTemple said his primary concern is with small townships that have a hard enough time attracting people to run for office.
“They have a budget of a quarter million dollars and they’re trying to stretch that so they can chip and seal the 40 miles of roads they have,” he said. “There’s not a lot of wining and dining that go on at that level.”
But there are townships with multi-million dollar budgets, many of which pay their trustees more than city council members in similarly sized or larger cities, a recent investigation by this newspaper found.
And while ethics findings against them are not frequent, they do happen. An Ethics Commission investigation led to a guilty plea last year of Carl Douglas Walker, former trustee and administrator of Union Twp. in Clermont County, on charges he steered hundreds of thousands of dollars of work to his son’s engineering firm.
The Ethics Commission in July issued an advisory opinion saying fire department employees are allowed to attend classes taught by the fire chief, but that it’s improper for the chief to to mandate or approve the tuition payments. This was an issue in Xenia Twp. in Greene County, where then-Fire Chief Daryl Meyers sent firefighters to attend a class he taught at Sinclair Community College.
Potential conflicts of interest involving charter school board members and officials have led to criminal charges in some cases.
William Peterson of Dayton pleaded guilty last month to unlawful interest in a public contract after he steered business to companies he owned while CEO of a Cleveland charter school. Still awaiting trial is a former board member who owned the company that leased facilities to the school.
All public school superintendents, treasurers and business managers have to file financial disclosure forms with the Ohio Ethics Commission. The forms are not made public. School board members have to file forms, which are public, for any district with more than 12,000 students. That exempts roughly 600 school boards across the state.
No one from charter schools has to file.
“When we reintroduce this legislation I think that’s well worth consideration,” Lehner said, arguing at a minimum the same standards should apply to charter and public schools.
But Ron Adler, president of the charter school advocacy group Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, said requiring probing financial disclosure would make people more hesitant to volunteer for charter school boards. Problems with charter schools would be better addressed with more screening of new schools, Adler said.
“If you have somebody that has broken the law…I don’t think you should keep raising the bar for everybody else that’s been doing things right over the years,” he said.
Cities, public schools
The 185 cases handled by the ethics commission this year are an increase from the 158 handled last year, though within the normal range, Nick said.
Of this year’s cases, 85 were closed: 27 with some sort of settlement, and 14 with censure of the official.
Cities and villages accounted for 27 percent of the cases handled by the ethics commission this year, and public schools accounted for 23 percent, though it was unclear from state records how many of the individuals investigated had to file forms.
Sara Clark, deputy director of legal services for the Ohio School Board Association, said her agency has no official statement on whether the threshold should be lowered for filing, but that the ethics law applies to all board members whether they file or not.
“I believe Ohio’s ethics laws are working,” she said.
Should public officials disclose their finances?
Reporter Josh Sweigart filled out an ethics disclosure form with his personal financial information, then ran it by the Ohio Ethics Commission for an unofficial OK before posting it to our website, mydaytondailynews.com, to illustrate what kind of information is required on the form.
Notable Ethics Commission cases in 2013
Oct. 25: The Ethics Commission reprimanded a Columbus City School Board member for having a prohibited interest in four contracts awarded to her husband.
Sept. 25: The Ethics Commission warned of the potential for conflicts of interest with members of the JobsOhio board and dozens other of the 85 state boards and commissions whose financial disclosure forms are not made public. The finding directs the agencies to take extra steps to avoid conflicts.
July 11: The Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion saying a fire chief could be paid to teach a class attended by the firefighters he supervises, but he cannot direct them to take the class nor authorize payment of tuition. That must be done by someone above the fire chief. This was an issue in Xenia Twp. in Greene County.
April 12: Three people, including the former treasurer of the Berea School District, were indicted on charges including theft in office, tampering with records, money laundering, forgery and having an unlawful interest in a public contract. Authorities allege the three steered school district money to a health care business they were affiliated with.
Jan. 25: The mayor of Mayfield Heights was charged with violating Ohio ethics laws by filing false financial disclosure forms that did not list $115,000 received by two companies, one of which was operating oil and gas wells in the city.
Jan. 18: The Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion permitting Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel to refinance his home with a bank that does business with the state.