Elections & Voting
Bush election theft saga heats up In Ohio
By Evelyn Pringle
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 20, 2006, 11:42

Ohio Governor Bob Taft, and his partner in crime in stealing the 2004 election in Ohio, President George W Bush, have a lot in common. Bush holds one the of lowest approval ratings of any president in US history, and at a whopping 26 percent, Taft holds the title for the lowest approval rating for any Ohio governor since the University of Cincinnati started the poll 25 years ago in 1981.

And Taft's numbers are not likely to head upward any time soon. In what can only serve as another reminder of his conviction in 2005 on ethics charges, on June 13, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered Taft to turn over documents in response to a request by state Senator Marc Dann, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, which Dann contends may help determine what happened to the money missing from the state's Bureau of Workers' Compensation Fund (BWC).

In February 2006, one of Bush's Ohio campaign co-chairmen, Thomas Noe, was charged with 53 felony counts for his role in the disappearance of millions of dollars from the rare-coin fund he managed for the BWC, including 22 counts of forgery, 11 counts of money laundering, six counts of aggravated theft, eight counts of tampering with records, six counts of grand theft, and one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.

The Ohio auditor�s office has said Noe and some of his former business associates owe the state over $13.5 million. A special audit from an outside firm, released in February 2006, alleges Noe's lavish lifestyle was bankrolled with money from the $50 million he controlled in two rare-coin funds for the BWC.

The same day that Noe received the first $25 million from the Ohio BWC fund, on March 31, 1998, the audit found that Noe transferred $1.375 million to his Vintage Coins and Collectibles company to buy coins for the state fund but, according to the audit, Vintage �did not possess the inventory levels necessary to support the sales transaction.�

The audit also found 15 transactions totaling $3,930,000, labeled as coin purchases from Vintage Coins, but in "12 of the 15 transactions," the audit said, "Vintage check registers reflected a negative cash balance at the time the deposits were recorded.�

After the 15 transactions, auditors found that Vintage Coins financial records showed payments of: $504,657 to a line of credit in the name of Noe; $227,049 in direct payments to Noe; $542,675 in payments to �related companies;� $1,020,676 to �related individuals,� and $176,088 worth of payments to builders and home appliance companies for Noe's homes.

Legal documents released in May 2006 allege that Noe wrote out checks to his friends for over $440,000 from the state�s funds, and then forged their signatures and deposited the money in accounts he controlled.

Although it is now known that the investigation into this matter was initiated before the 2004 presidential election, the voters in Ohio were kept in the dark until the Toledo Blade broke the story in April 2005.

A few days after the Blade story was published, Taft jumped in to publicly defend Noe, claiming that Noe has "probably been the most effective advocate for this part of the state in Columbus that you've got and you're going after this guy."

"You're trying to kill him," Taft said, "for some reason."

But the facts in the case reveal that nobody was picking on poor Tom Noe. The Ohio attorney general says Noe may have stole as much as $6 million and many critics are speculating that at least some of the missing money was funneled to Republican politicians all over the country, from Washington, DC, to Ohio and all the way to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to the Toledo Blade, Dann wants Taft's records released on "the supposition that they will shed light on what the governor knew about wrongdoing at the Bureau of Workers' Compensation."

Since April, Taft has been fighting to keep the documents secret -- which include weekly reports compiled by his top aides. The Ohio high court will now review the records in private and decide whether they should be made public.

The June14 Blade, reported that Dann "has said more documents could shed additional light on why up to $13 million is unaccounted for in the state's rare-coin investment controlled by Tom Noe and why the state lost $216 million in a risky hedge fund managed by Mark D. Lay of MDL Capital Management of Pittsburgh."

Taft's ethical lapses became public on June 14, 2005, when Taft sent a letter to the Ohio Ethics Commission stating that it has "recently come to my attention that I failed to list a number of golf outings or events on my financial disclosure forms over the past several years." Taft apparently expects the public to believe that a total of 52 golf outings paid for by Noe just slipped his mind.

On August 27, 2005, Noe's attorney released a statement pointing the finger at Taft and said Taft was informed of the rare-coin operation involving BWC funds by Noe on May 13, 2001, at a Toledo golf course after Taft publicly claimed that he was unaware of Noe's dealings with the WBC until he read about it in an article in the April 3, 2005, the Toledo Blade.

But this month another revelation came to light, adding more fuel to the fire. On June 16, "Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, a member of the federal-state task force investigating the bureau, confirmed that the probe has expanded into the state's five pension funds, focusing on possible gratuities from brokers and other firms to pension system officials," according to the June 16, Toledo Blade.

The case is heating up on another front as well. The scandal has now reportedly spread to the world of sports memorabilia. According to Michael O'Keeffe, in the June 17 Daily News, investigators suspect that the world's largest sports auction house, Mastro Auctions, may have played a role in what is being called "Coingate."

It seem that when investigators raided Noe's company, Vintage Coins and Collectibles, in May 2005, they found collectibles including everything "from Beanie Babies to 19th-century political banners to Bob Gibson-signed baseballs -- worth an estimated $3.5 million," O'Keeffe said.

An Ohio auditor told O'Keeffe that Mastro Auctions sold at least $1.3 million worth of memorabilia to Noe's two funds.

"Most of the seized collectibles are political items," O'Keeffe said, "but Noe also won numerous sports lots, including Hall of Fame plaques purchased for $16,541, a Mickey Mantle bat ($14,014), a collection of 10,000 baseball cards ($8,603), 100 balls signed by Ted Williams ($29,078) and 12 Walter Payton-signed footballs ($4,016)."

Lucas Country Prosecutor John Weglian told O'Keeffe that he will focus on Mastro Auctions after Noe's trial in October, which, he says, will be a complex case that will require at least four weeks and involve over100 witnesses.

"Until that case is resolved," he told O'Keeffe, "Mastro Auctions will remain on a back burner."

In May, Noe pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws by funneling over $45,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign by having 24 people, including several former and current Ohio state officials, attend a $2,000 a plate fundraiser and make donations in their own names with money supplied by Noe.

Noe is facing a maximum of 5 years in prison on each of the three charges and a potential fine of close to $1 million. Assistant US Attorney John Pearson of the public integrity section of the US Department of Justice told reporters that he will seek an even harsher penalty for Noe, because of the "potential loss of public faith in the presidential race."

At the time of the indictment, US attorneys called Noe's conduct "one of the most blatant and excessive criminal campaign finance schemes we have encountered."

But Noe's misdeeds did not go unrewarded. According to the May 31 Toledo Blade, as he rose to prominence in the Republican party, Noe "secured high-profile gubernatorial appointments to the Bowling Green State University Board of Trustees and the Ohio Board of Regents, and for a time was chairman of the regents -- despite being a college dropout. He also was appointed to the Ohio Turnpike Commission, where he also was chairman."

Noe became a Bush "Pioneer" by raising at least $100,000 for the Bush reelection campaign And tit-for-tat, in May 2003, Noe was appointed to a committee of the US Mint, a panel that advises the US Treasury secretary on themes and designs for coins and congressional gold medals and was named chairman, according to the Blade.

But funneling money to Republican politicians is not the only part Noe played in the theft of the presidential election in Ohio. For many years he was chairman of the Lucas County Board of Elections and was involved in the deal that brought the now infamous Diebold opti-scan voting machines into the inner city of Toledo, where many of the machines mysteriously broke down on Election Day.

Hearings conducted by the Free Press after the election confirmed that thousands of inner city Toledo voters were disenfranchised due to the faulty machines.

On July 29, 2005, Richard Hayes Phillips, PhD, testified at an Election Assessment Hearing in Houston, Texas, and said, "I have investigated the Ohio election results, precinct by precinct, and have found three categories of problems: voter suppression, ballots cast but not counted, and alteration of the vote count."

Statewide, he says, there were 35,000 provisional ballots and over 92,000 regular ballots that were not counted. The uncounted ballots, most of them punch cards, were concentrated in precincts that voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, by margins of 12 to 1 in Cleveland, 7 to 1 in Dayton, 5 to 1 in Cincinnati, 4.5 to 1 in Akron, 3 to 1 in Lorain County, 2.7 to 1 in Stark County, and 2.3 to 1 in Trumbull County.

Phillips says this information warrants an examination of all the uncounted ballots and the machines that failed to count them.

Critics say politics don't get much dirtier than the underhanded deals revealed over the past two years involving Republicans in Ohio. In addition to Taft's convictions, the investigation of Noe's money laundering schemes has resulted in charges against four of Taft's aides.

On January 28, former aide, H. Douglas Talbott, admitted in documents filed with the Ohio Elections Commission that he funneled campaign money from Noe to the chief justice and two other Ohio Supreme Court justices.

Noe and his wife also contributed to the campaign of the current Ohio attorney general and, in return, Bernadette Noe's law firm was given contracts worth thousands of dollars collecting bad debts for the state.

Since the money laundering scheme was revealed, Bush and the Republican National Committee (RNC) returned $6,000 in direct contributions from Noe and his wife, and other state and federal officials have returned thousands more, including Taft, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell who is the current Republican candidate running for governor, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Blackwell's nomination is a reward for all his help in stealing the election in Ohio, in large part, by favoring his own party when distributing voting equipment and materials for the November 2, 2004, election, among other things.

According to the December 12, 2004, Columbus Dispatch, precincts that had gone 70 percent or more for Al Gore in election 2000 were allocated 17 fewer machines in 2004, while strong GOP precincts received eight additional machines.

According to an investigation by the Columbus Free Press, white Republican suburbanites, blessed with a surplus of machines, averaged waits of only 22 minutes, while black urban Democrats averaged three hours and fifteen minutes.

"The allocation of voting machines in Franklin County was clearly biased against voters in precincts with high proportions of African-Americans," said Cornell University Professor Walter Mebane, Jr., in a February 11 letter responding to a June 29, 2005, letter from the US Department of Justice, after conducting a statistical analysis of the vote in and around Columbus.

In another move directly calculated increase traffic jams at the polls on Election Day, the GOP sent out 3,600 operatives to challenge voters in 31 counties in mostly predominantly black and urban areas. For instance, in Hamilton County, 14 percent of new voters in white areas were confronted at the polls, compared to 97 percent of new voters in black areas, according to the November 2, 2004, Columbus Dispatch.

Sworn statements by citizens at public hearings in Columbus and Toledo confirmed that scores of voters were disenfranchised because they had to go to work and could not wait in line. According to the Toledo Blade, at a polling site in east Toledo, the one and only machine broke down at about 7 a.m. and when Ohio Representative, Peter Ujvagi tried to vote an hour later, a poll worker told him to just put his ballot in "a secure slot under the machine" so it could be scanned in later, after Ujvagi was gone.

Inner-city black voters who stuck it out waited three hours in the rain, on average but some waited up to seven hours, according to election officials and sworn testimony by local voters, while nearby white Republican voters had virtually no delays. The waiting time at liberal Kenyon College, in Knox County, reached 11 hours, while voters at a nearby conservative Bible school got to vote in five minutes.

By midmorning on November 2, with voters, no longer able the wait, dropping out of lines, precincts were requesting the right to distribute paper ballots to speed up the process but Blackwell denied the requests, saying it was an invitation for fraud, according to the lawsuit filed against Blackwell by the Democratic party on November 2, 2004.

The lawsuit, Ohio Democratic Party v. Blackwell, No. C2 04 1055, had supporting affidavits from election officials and voters describing the voting impediments occurring in Democratic precincts.

An affidavit filed from Columbus Precinct 44D said: "There are three voting machines at this precinct. I have been informed that in prior elections there were normally four voting machines. At 1:45 p.m. there are approximately eighty-five voters in line. At this time, the line to vote is approximately three hours long. This precinct is largely African-American. I have personally witnessed voters leaving the polling place without voting due to the length of the line."

From Precinct 18A, an affidavit said: "At 4 p.m. the average wait time is about 4.5 hours and continuing to increase. Voters are continuing to leave without voting."

An affidavit from a judge at Precinct 40 states: "I am serving as a presiding judge, a position I have held for some 15+ years in precinct 40. In all my years of service, the lines are by far the longest I have seen, with some waiting as long as four to five hours. I expect the situation to only worsen as the early evening heavy turnout approaches. I have requested additional machines since 6:40 a.m. and no assistance has been offered."

In response to the lawsuit, in the early evening, US District Judge, Algernon Marbley, issued a temporary order requiring that paper ballots be offered to voters. However, according to estimates published in the December 15, 2004, Washington Post, as many as 15,000 voters in Columbus had already given up and gone home.

When poll closing time came, some Republican poll workers dismissed voters who had waited in line for hours in the rain in violation of Ohio law, which allows people in line at closing time to stay and vote.

The GOP owes Blackwell a lot. They definitely could not have stolen the election without him and he no doubt earned every dime he ever got from Noe.

The only news reporter to publicly questioned the integrity of the 2004 election was Keith Olbermann during his nightly show on MSNBC.

During an interview for an article published in the June 2006 Rolling Stone Magazine, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., asked him why he stood against the tide and Olbermann said, "I was a sports reporter, so I was used to dealing with numbers."

"And the numbers made no sense," he continued. "Kerry had an insurmountable lead in the exit polls on Election Night -- and then everything flipped," he told Kennedy.

Olbermann said he believes that other reporters fell down on the job. ''I was stunned by the lack of interest by investigative reporters," he said. "The Republicans shut down Warren County, allegedly for national security purposes -- and no one covered it."

"Shouldn't someone have sent a camera and a few reporters out there," he noted.

Olbermann attributes the lack of coverage to self-censorship by journalists. "You can rock the boat, but you can never say that the entire ocean is in trouble," he told Kennedy. "You cannot say: By the way, there's something wrong with our electoral system."

"The issue of what happened in 2004 is not an academic one," Kennedy says in the Rolling Stone article. "For the second election in a row," he notes, "the president of the United States was selected not by the uncontested will of the people but under a cloud of dirty tricks."

"Given the scope of the GOP machinations, we simply cannot be certain that the right man now occupies the Oval Office," Kennedy pointed out, "which means, in effect, that we have been deprived of our faith in democracy itself."

"If people lose faith that their votes are accurately and faithfully recorded," he warns, "they will abandon the ballot box."

"Nothing less is at stake here," Kennedy says, "than the entire idea of a government by the people."

Based on the last two presidential elections, voters seem to agree with Kennedy, and say there is little reason to think that future elections won't fall victim to this same sort of manipulation.

"Admittedly, I have become somewhat cynical," says voter Jacquelyn Webber. "But having voted for 50 years and observed the actions of various administrations," she explains, "I have never seen our country with such dishonest, secretive and greed-driven leadership and apparently no respect for our Constitution and little, if any, value for human lives."

Webber also believes that the media should have done a better job of informing the public about misconduct involving the current administration before the election.

"I do not believe a well-informed public would have tolerated the destructive actions which are ongoing and have placed our Constitution and American way of life in serious jeopardy," she states, "and I hold the media grossly responsible for failing to provide truthful information to the public which might well have resulted in a totally different and more positive outlook for our country by not allowing this greed-driven administration to come into such power."

Back in Ohio, Republicans are worried about this year's election and are screaming foul over the decision by Lucas County Judge Thomas Osowik, in response to a defense motion by Noe, to move the trial date from August to October, claiming the judge is seeking a political advantage to improve his chances of winning a spot on the Ohio Court of Appeals in the election, while at the same time harming their chances at the ballot box.

However, others disagree. According to the June 14 Toledo Blade, Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said Noe's case should be tried before the election so voters will know as much as possible about the case, which touches on many Republican officials and candidates all over the state.

"It's important for the people of Ohio to know the facts by Election Day," Rothenberg told the Blade.

Noe also tried to have Judge Osowik thrown off the case but that motion was denied.

He also filed a motion trying to get a change of venue citing adverse publicity in Lucas county. "Indeed, the sheer number of references to Tom Noe in the Toledo Blade has turned Mr. Noe's name into an epithet," the motion said, "using it as a shorthand for corruption or vice in any article that is even remotely related to government, Ohio politics, or investments of any kind."

The fact is a person would be hard-pressed to find a Republican politician in Ohio who has not accepted money from Noe over the past decade. The underlying question remains whether the money that turned up missing ended up in the pockets of those politicians.

In any event, between the media coverage and the involvement of Republican politicians all over the state, critics say it would be next to impossible to find a jury pool anywhere in Ohio who has not heard about the scandal.

According to a news database search by the Toledo Blade, in addition to their own articles, since April 1, 2005, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has mentioned the case in 230 articles and the Columbus Dispatch have mentioned it in 267.

Evelyn Pringle is a columnist for OpEd News and an investigative journalist focusing on exposing corruption in government.

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