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Lawmaker may have broken ethics law

Springfield Republican Chris Widener sought variance before state board on fire hall he designed.

Springfield Republican Sen. Chris Widener may have violated Ohio ethics law when he personally appeared before a state board to appeal a building code ruling on a fire hall he designed as part of his private business, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

Widener was in the Ohio Senate when he won a variance in the case for Bethel Twp., which in 2007 hired his Springfield-based architectural firm, WDC Group, to design a fire station in Medway.

State ethics law prohibits state legislators from being paid to appear before state boards, commissions or agencies.

Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe declined to comment on the specifics of any legislator’s actions but said Ohio law “prohibits compensation for representation before state agencies on certain matters” such as cases, proceedings and applications.

Widener’s firm was paid $165,556 to design the fire hall, and a hearing transcript shows he appeared before the state Board of Building Appeals to argue in favor of a variance on Oct. 26, 2009. The variance allowed the project to go forward without major changes.

Ethics questions have hounded Widener, who has continued to pursue and win taxpayer-funded architecture and construction management projects in his legislative district even as he became a powerful figure in state government.

Widener is second in command in the Ohio Senate and sits on the Controlling Board, which oversees capital and operating expenditures, waives competitive bidding requirements and approves state grants and loans. The Ohio Senate is currently deliberating over the state’s $63 billion state budget.

The Dayton Daily News investigation into Widener’s business interests found that his architecture firm has long sought contracts for publicly funded schools, fire halls, police stations, administrative buildings, fairgrounds and other projects.

The WDC Group boasts in bid documents that it has worked for “more than 40 different townships, cities, counties, municipalities, public agencies and public institutions throughout Ohio and other states” on projects with budgets totaling $450 million over more than 20 years.

Since joining the General Assembly in December 1999, Widener has emerged as a key player among Republicans, taking over as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee during the 2011-12 session and serving as Senate President Pro Tem during the current session.

In March 2008, while still in the Ohio House, Widener backed changes to a bill that benefited a struggling Springfield-based nonprofit that he co-founded and financially backed.

Widener resigned from the board of the Ohio Equine and Agricultural Association just before inserting an amendment in the state budget bill to allow Clark County to levy a bed tax. Ohio Equine eventually received $412,890 in revenue from the tax.

‘A good leader’

Widener has vigorously defended his business practices, saying he takes steps to avoid any conflicts of interest. In written responses to the newspaper last week, he and his attorney said the work Widener does as an architect supports his family and “is completely permissible according to the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee.” He acknowledged appearing before the state Board of Building Appeals, but said it was legal because he was not paid to appear.

“The transcript shows I did not argue for any outcome at the meeting and only spoke when asked questions by the board members,” he said in the statement.

Being an Ohio lawmaker is considered a part-time job, so legislators often work other jobs, such as lawyer or business owner.

Anthony Wilhoit, director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission and an expert on ethics laws, said legislators aren’t legally precluded from going after public contracts as part of their private sector jobs as long as they don’t use their office to obtain the work.

“Any public servant has always got some public perception issues, and they’re the ones that if you can do it technically under what the law says, there’s no foul. But at the same time, if you create public perception issues, you’re not only harming yourself in the eyes of the public as an honest person, but the institution itself suffers,” Wilhoit said. “So you have got to be careful about those things. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but just be careful depending on the individual circumstances.”

Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, defended Widener, saying he “clears virtually everything he does through JLEC (the Joint Legislative Ethics Commission) and has assured that there are no legal conflicts.”

“I think Chris is a good leader,” Faber said. “Chris has proven himself through the caucus to be a hard worker, very smart on the issues. And I think Chris is certainly someone who serves his district and his constituents well.”

Springfield ice arena

It’s hard to determine to what extent Widener’s political connections may have benefited his private business, but architects are often chosen for publicly funded projects based on subjective evaluations.

In 2010 a single point on a nearly 900-point grading system separated WDC Group and an out-of-town bidder on a $569,566 contract to design and oversee construction of the Family Ice Arena and Expo Center in downtown Springfield.

A three-member scoring committee — all from Springfield — gave Widener’s company 449 points and 360 Architecture, which has offices in Columbus, Kansas City and San Francisco, 448 points.

The losing firm had more sports facility experience, including designing Miami University’s Goggin Ice Center and Nationwide Arena in Columbus.

Scott Ralston of 360 Architecture said he isn’t complaining about the contract award, which has so far paid Widener’s firm $403,000. But he did say an out-of-town company is at a disadvantage.

“We understood. He’s the local architect. We were the long shot going in,” Ralston said. “There were no issues in that pursuit from our perspective. We were invited to present our credentials by some of the locals. … The forces of being a local architect are really tangible forces. He’s a local architect and he’s respected there, and he’s got his office there.”

Springfield City Engineer Leo Shanayda, who served on the ice arena scoring committee, said, “I don’t believe WDC being local was a factor in the scoring. We don’t normally take into account location.”

Shanayda scored 360 Architecture 150 points and WDC 127 points. But committee members Tim Smith, who at the time was head of the park district, and Bryan Heck, who had been an assistant to the city manager, gave higher marks to WDC.

Widener said, “Our team is the most qualified design and management team for the ice project and that is why I believe we were selected.” He added that the engineering and consulting consultants on the team are hockey players and “have been playing competitive ice hockey since their youth.”

The arena is scheduled to open this fall.

Bethel Twp. Fire Station

In 2007, the Bethel Twp. board in Clark County voted 2-1 to hire WDC to design a fire station in Medway. Widener’s firm was paid $165,556 out of the $1.74 million project — funded by bond sales and township cash.

Bethel Twp. Trustee David Finfrock, who argued against hiring WDC, said local governments have an inherent conflict when hiring their state lawmaker to design and oversee the construction of a taxpayer-funded project. He also thought Widener’s costs were too high.

The project hit a snag over a fire suppression system that covered only part of the building.

The chief building official for Clark County ruled that the system did not meet code, so Widener went before the state building appeals board to argue for a variance on behalf of Bethel Twp. It is that action that may have put him in violation of state ethics law.

The board is under the state commerce department and funded by the legislature.

A transcript of the hearing shows Widener personally appeared before the board and was peppered with questions from board members James Mulligan, a firefighter, and G. Duane Welsh, an attorney.

“I kind of find it ironic here that we’re dealing with a fire station and we’re trying to get a variance dealing with a fire suppression system,” Welsh noted during the hour-long hearing.

An Ohio Joint Legislative Ethics Committee opinion in a separate case clearly states that a member of the General Assembly “is prohibited from rendering any service personally before state entities.”

But Widener says the decision by the Clark County building inspectors would have cost the township an additional $250,000. He said he was not required by the contract to appear before the board, but did so “to explain the plans I prepared.”

Wilhoit said most states bar lawmakers from appearing before state boards.

“There is some feeling that when you’re appearing before a state agency as a legislator you’re going to have some influence on that state agency’s budget,” he said. “Plus, there is the appearance thing. Because of who you are, the agency may be more influenced by what you have to say.”

In Widener’s case, the five-member board added some conditions before approving the variance.

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