Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is conducting an investigation into whether Wright State University and its consultant, Ron Wine, violated state lobbying laws when the university paid him nearly $2 million without prior approval from the state Controlling Board.
Since 2011, Ohio law has mandated that public universities get Controlling Board approval for any lobbying contracts that exceed $50,000 in a calendar year.
DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said his office has “original jurisdiction” and would refer the matter to the Franklin County prosecutor’s office if it finds the contract violates state law.
Wright State officials say Wine is not operating as a lobbyist.
In a story Sunday, the Dayton Daily News reported that the Ron Wine Consulting Group billed Wright State $1.99 million since 2009, including $957,000 in 2014, and a new four-year deal allows him to bill the university up to $1 million a year.
Wine is tasked with garnering $20 million in the state budget over the next two years, bringing in $140 million in federal contracts over the next three years, and achieving sustained annual research revenue of $100 million for the university by mid-2018, the newspaper reported.
Ohio Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe is also looking into whether Wine should have been registered as a lobbyist for Wright State.
“In light of the Dayton Daily News story regarding Mr. Wine’s current and prior activities, we’re going to communicate with Wright State on whether under Ohio law registration is or was required by Mr. Wine,” said Bledsoe. On Wednesday, Bledsoe sent a letter to Wine and Wright State giving them 15 days to register Wine as a lobbyist or explain why he doesn’t have to register.
People who are paid to advocate their client’s interests before state officials must register as lobbyists if that part of their job exceeds 5 percent of their workload for legislative lobbying or 25 percent of their time for executive branch lobbying. Registration rules promote government transparency, Bledsoe said.
Wright State has employed four registered lobbyists this year, including three former state lawmakers. Wine hasn’t been a registered lobbyist since 2010. University documents show Wine’s work this year has included meetings with state lawmakers to discuss “state budget priorities” and other issues.
Wright State University President David Hopkins told the newspaper, “He’s not a lobbyist. We don’t use him as a lobbyist.”
When asked about the OLIG inquiry, WSU officials Wednesday said they stand by Hopkins’ earlier assertion.
Wright State was unable to produce a contract between the university and Ron Wine Consulting for 2014 when he billed nearly $1 million. Documentation for previous years also was incomplete.
Lawmakers said they are concerned about such lack of documentation.
“I would think that is a question for (university trustees) and a question for the auditor’s office. I don’t know how you pay someone a million bucks without a contract,” said Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office is in the middle of a routine audit of Wright State’s books. That audit, due early next year, may now include a review of the Wine contract, according to Carrie Bartunek, a spokeswoman for the office. “The auditor’s office is going to consult with the AG’s office and may review it in the current audit,” Bartunek said.
The size of the contract too caught lawmakers by surprise.
“Everyone is shocked,” said state Rep. Bob Hackett, R-London, who plans to meet with Hopkins this week. “Like others, I was surprised by the amount of the contract and want some answers.”
Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, D-Austintown, said in a written statement: “The size of the consultant contract seems excessive at a time when public universities across Ohio are being asked to do more with less. It is also troubling that Wright State was slow to reveal details of the consultant contract when the Dayton Daily News asked for the information through a public records request. As a matter of public policy, the expenditure of tax dollars should always be justified and fully accounted for.”
Hopkins told the Daily News that Wine is the university’s “chief strategist” in the realm of economic development and connects the university with contacts in the Air Force, private industry and state and federal government.
House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, a WSU grad, said he does not normally work with Wine when Wright State matters come before the General Assembly.
“I deal with (WSU Vice President and lobbyist) Bob Hickey and directly with President Hopkins when I deal with Wright State matters,” Rosenberger said. He noted he has only met Wine twice that he can recall.
Faber said “I’m sure I have met Mr. Wine. I’ve heard his name but he is not somebody I know very regularly. I know he is active in the Miami Valley.”
Wine’s firm has billed Wright State $311,505 since May. The most recent invoice, from September, shows he billed for 285 hours of work at rates ranging from $100 to $250 an hour. As in previous months, his work focused largely on working with Air Force and university officials to help build the Federal Research Network.
Calls to the phone number listed on contract documents were not returned.
Bledsoe said OLIG handles about a dozen such probes a year. Most often, if someone is found to be engaging in unregistered lobbying, the office requires them to pay the $35 filing fee and sign up.
“In most cases the failure to register is not a knowing omission,” Bledsoe said. “In most cases what we do is work to educate, achieve public disclosure and work with the organization and individual to make sure they understand the obligation they have if they work in compensated lobbying in the state of Ohio,” he said.
If someone is found to have willfully avoided registering, Bledsoe can refer the case to the Ohio Attorney General for a criminal investigation. Failing to register is a fourth degree misdemeanor. The maximum penalty is 30 days and a $250 fine.
The last criminal penalty was assessed about 10 years ago, Bledsoe said.
Registering as a lobbyist requires public reporting on lobbying activity and limits on gifts and meal expenditures on lawmakers.