Area county among highest in open ethics probes as Ethics Commission marks 50th year

Apr. 19—The Ohio Ethics Commission this year has 11 open investigations across southwest Ohio — six in Butler County alone — as it marks its 50th anniversary.

The agency is armed with a 19-member staff and tasked with overseeing some 590,000 elected officials, contractors and decision makers at all levels of government in Ohio.

The bulk of the 103 open ethics investigations statewide involve local governments and were reported by concerned citizens, according to the agency's annual report released this month.

Paul Nick, the executive director of the OEC since 2011, spoke with the Dayton Daily News in his Columbus office about the commission's responsibilities and its 2023 activity.

"I kind of see our mission as guiding public officials on what the law is, and then protecting the public from people who violate it," said Nick, who joined the commission in 1995 and holds the distinction as the longest-serving staff member.

Local counties

The annual report notes two open investigations in Greene County, and one each in Montgomery, Miami and Preble counties.

Nick would not divulge what the open investigations in local counties entail. Under Ohio ethics laws, OEC investigations are confidential unless public action is taken. "We're kind of like an ongoing grand jury," Nick said.

The six open cases in Butler County put it tied for fifth highest in the state.

"We've had quite a few things in Butler County," said Nick, noting that former Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds was the subject of a recent investigation that resulted in Reynolds being convicted on a felony count of unlawful interest in a public contract.

"It's kind of interesting. I hate to single out a particular county because I don't think it's fair, but I think when you get into areas that have a lot of development and there tends to be a single party monopoly, that seems to be a recipe for thunderstorms," Nick explained. He noted that it's not a Republican or Democratic issue; it's more so an issue of opportunity.

"There's just a lot of development money, a lot of things going on, and that's always a recipe for potential conflicts," Nick said.

Statewide stats

Of the 103 open investigations going into 2024, 23 were at the city level, 22 were at the township level, 20 were at the village level and 10 were at the county level. There are only two active investigations involving a state employee or official.

Bevan Schneck, a spokesperson for the Ohio Municipal League, a statewide representative of local governments, told this news organization that he's not particularly surprised that most investigations and advisory requests came from locals, on account of there being over 900 municipalities throughout the state.

"We work with them regularly and we try to get them in front of our members at all our conferences. Basically, our view is that the more education our members have, the better," Schneck said, noting that he's found the OEC to be more of a guide than an adversary.

As for the types of cases the ethics commission is investigating in that statewide total, 62 involve a person in power aiming to secure an item of value for themselves or their families. Another 21 involve someone caught in a conflict of interest between their responsibility to the government and an outside employer or business interest.

High profile cases

The public usually finds out about the outcome of ethics investigations through an indictment — as in the Reynolds case — or a public reprimand in a settlement agreement.

Nick said the ethics commission prioritizes settlements over charges, when applicable, because it often provides the public more transparency on what was alleged and substantiated.

"Here, we can actually say, 'Hey, here's what happened, here's how it came to us," said Nick. "If it's a self report we'll put it out there. And then we'll put in the facts, 'Here's what was alleged, here's what was found, here's what we agreed to.' We'll put all the salient facts in play."

While these settlements are "public" and often contain a "public reprimand," they are not posted or publicized. Every year, the Dayton Daily News obtains them using Ohio public records law and posts them.

In 2023, there were seven public officials who accepted reprimands through settlement agreements. They included a Lake County commissioner who admitted to using his county equipment and office for his teaching job; an Upper Arlington police chief and sergeant who were involved in getting their kids seasonal jobs at Safety Town, a village police chief in Jefferson County who used his personal company to install security equipment at the police station, and an Ohio Department of Public Safety employee who utilized a state discount to buy paint for his home.

In previous years, cases have included a Mason city councilmember, Clark County development director, former Yellow Springs planning commissioner and state board of education vice president.

The Ethics Commission's involvement in the House Bill 6 scandal — which sent former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder to prison for masterminding the largest bribery scheme in state history — involved investigating former GOP Chair Matt Borges.

Borges, Householder's right-hand man, was under the OEC's purview due to his position on the Columbus State Board of Trustees. Nick said the OEC's investigation found nothing against Borges, though he was federally sentenced for other crimes.

The OEC did work with investigators on Sam Randazzo, a former top utility regulator in Ohio who allegedly accepted a $4.3 million bribe in exchange for favorable regulatory treatment of FirstEnergy and faced state and federal charges. In part, Nick said, Randazzo was charged with filing false financial disclosure statements with the OEC. Randazzo reportedly died by suicide earlier this month.

Expansive job

Over the past half century, the commission has been chiefly responsible for educating a wide range of elected officials and government workers about Ohio's ethics laws that have been only sporadically revised since 1974. The commission also fields questions and provides advice on ethically murky situations and investigates violations of the law when all else has failed.

Nick described his team, which supplements a six member, evenly-split bipartisan board appointed by the governor, as the "catch-all" of Ohio's conflict of interests violations.

Two other ethics agencies oversee state representatives, senators and judges, which leaves the OEC with jurisdiction over the governor and the entire executive branch, all state employees, state boards and commission members, college and universities, public and charter schools, the elected officials and staff of all counties, cities, villages, townships, and over anyone who does business with any of the aforementioned entities.

Put another way: "We have authority over everybody," Nick said, in only a slight embellishment of his board's reach.

When OEC staff isn't investigating a violation or writing pages-long advisory opinions, it works to educate as many public employees as possible about state's ethics laws, processes thousands of financial disclosure forms from government officials and electoral candidates, and more.

It's a considerable undertaking for a staff that numbers fewer than 20.

Limited funding

Thomas Suddes, a longtime former Ohio Statehouse reporter and current professor at Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism, has raised concerns about how much money the state is willing to give to the body that it expects to police the ethics of nearly 600,000 public employees.

In the most recent budget cycle, that number was $2.8 million per year.

"Combined, for this year, the legislature allotted $12.8 million to the four bureaucracy-policing agencies in a state budget totaling $41.4 billion in general-revenue fund spending this fiscal year. That is, the General Assembly allots peanuts to policing public ethics," Suddes wrote in an op-ed piece that ran in the Dayton Daily News.

Nick noted that, on most things, his staff is at a "fairly efficient threshold." The OEC has been able to return all advisory requests within 17 days in 2023; staffers have been cross trained on various teams; the pandemic brought along technological advancements that now allows a more efficient workflow.

However, Nick conceded: "We can do more if we have more staff, absolutely."

"We could definitely use some additional investigative resources," Nick said. "We have more allegations than we have the capacity to investigate‚ so we have to prioritize, that's always a challenge."


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Avery Kreemer can be reached at 614-981-1422, on X, via email, or you can drop him a comment/tip with the survey below.