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House leader proposes permanent watchdog for state officials


COLUMBUS — The leader of the Ohio House on Friday proposed a significant shift in state government checks and balances, saying the state inspector general should be given permanent power to probe the offices of attorney general, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer.

Under current law, the inspector general is appointed by the governor and has the power to investigate the governor and state agencies he oversees.

In the wake of a scandal in former Attorney General Marc Dann’s office, lawmakers took landmark action last week that gave Inspector General Tom Charles one-time ability to investigate the attorney general’s office.

Dann, a Democrat from Youngstown, resigned earlier this month in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal that rocked his office. In responding to the findings of an investigation into the matter, Dann admitted to an affair with a subordinate, a lack of preparation for his job and hiring friends who were ill-qualified for their positions. House Democrats introduced impeachment charges that were dropped when Dann resigned.

“When unethical, unlawful and unprofessional behavior occurs in the office of Ohio’s top law enforcement official, who are people supposed to call?” House
Speaker Jon Husted, a Republican, said in a statement. Husted said an internal investigation into activities at Dann’s office, conducted by a top Dann deputy, was not handled well and Ohio should not leave itself in a position where independent investigations cannot be conducted in offices other than the governor’s.

He said his chamber’s proposal announced Friday is an outgrowth of the need made apparent by the Dann case.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Bacon, calls for the inspector general to be appointed by Ohio’s chief justice rather than the governor after 2011, with confirmation required by the Ohio Senate.

David Goldberger, an Ohio State University law professor and expert in constitutional issues, said the proposal could create a serious conflict among Ohio’s branches of government, which are designed to remain separate and monitor each other’s actions.

“It’s very difficult to set boundaries on a special prosecutor or an independent prosecutor when he really isn’t under control of the executive branch, which is the proper branch to deal with criminal matters,” he said. He said Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, who prosecuted former President Bill Clinton, “dragged the country through a horrendous impeachment process.”

Husted said Friday that he didn’t believe legal action could be brought against the state over the proposal, because the chief justice’s authority would be set in law. He added, however, that he is willing to listen to other ideas.

Goldberger said the set-up proposed by Husted effectively would require the judicial branch to both gather the evidence, through the inspector general it would appoint, and sit in judgment over the crimes.

“People are overreacting to the Dann situation,” he said. “Certainly, there’s nothing here that indicates that his political party’s trying to cover for him. So what is it that we’re going to accomplish other than create a new player that could be very, very disruptive no matter whose political ox is gored? Today it might be a Democrat, but next time it might be a Republican.”

Ohio has seen statewide elected officials investigated, and even convicted, under the system as it exists today.

Former Gov. Bob Taft pleaded no contest and was convicted of ethics law violations in 2006 after a wide-ranging investigation by Charles, the Ohio Ethics
Commission and others into a state investment scandal touched upon his failure to report gifts he had accepted from Republican donor Tom Noe, who was investing state money in rare coins.

In 2004, prosecutors in Cuyahoga County investigated the role of then-State Treasurer Joe Deters in a contributions-for-favors scheme that saw three of his close allies convicted. They questioned Deters, but found no evidence he was aware that a generous donor to his campaign, rogue stockbroker Frank Gruttadauria, had been given a spot on a “short list” of preferred brokers doing business with his office.

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