Ohio is no stranger to scandal.
In fact, it’s been reported that, as of today, no state in the Union has a bigger scandal than the $61 million bribery case that federal prosecutors have brought against former Ohio Speaker Larry Householder and his associates for pushing a $1.3 billion bailout of Akron-based First Energy for two failing nuclear power plants.
As big as it is, that scandal does not stand alone as a black mark on what, for most of Ohio’s 218-year run as a state, has been a fairly stable and reliably honest government at all levels.
What follows here is a recap of nine of the most significant scandals that have taken place in the lifetime of most adult Ohioans.
Money is at the root of many of them, with bribery of public officials at the heart of those scandals. Greed, combined with enormous hubris and an unreasonable expectation that they would never be caught, fueled many.
And then there were the classic sex scandals, where elected officials thought somehow they could get away with using their public offices as something akin to a brothel.
They have all been great big messes and some led to a changeover in control of government from one political party to another.
This is by no means a complete list of the scandals that have hit home in Ohio over the years, but it is a representative sampling. And they prove that, when it comes to government scandals in Ohio, there is little that is new under the sun.
Money Hungry Members
Larry Householder and the biggest bribery scandal in Ohio history
Well, you can get out your foam rubber “We’re Number One!” fingers and parade through the streets of your Ohio hometown in celebration.
You live in the state which prosecutors say has the biggest open public corruption case of any Statehouse in the country – the $61 million bribery scandal which, last year, ensnared former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and his associates in an alleged bribery scheme which was (allegedly) in exchange for bailing out an Ohio-based electric utility’s investment in two nuclear power plants in Northern Ohio.
The bailout in this scheme was massive – $1.3 billion worth for Akron-based FirstEnergy company.
So far, five Republican have been charged in U.S. District Court with racketeering. And the investigation is still going on.
FirstEnergy has been in talks with federal prosecutors, in hopes of avoiding prosecution. And FBI agents searched the home of Sam Randazzo, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Randazzo resigned shortly thereafter.
The case against Householder and his associates has yet to go to trial.
The story burst into the headlines in July 2020 with the arrests of Householder, former Ohio Republican Party chair Matt Borges, lobbyists Neil Clark and Juan Cespedes, and Republican political strategist Jeff Longstreth. Clark, who for decade had been the top Republican lobbyist in the Statehouse, died by suicide in March of this year.
Many prominent Republicans have called on Householder to resign. But while he is no longer speaker, he remains in the legislature, and his fellow Republican legislators have done nothing to remove him from office.
“I believe in the justice system and I believe that if everything works the way it is supposed to, the truth will come out and, as I have said, I am innocent,” Householder told reporters last fall in the House chambers.
Guilty or not, Householder was the most powerful state legislator in Ohio, coming from Glenford, a bump in the road in the hard-scrabble southeast Ohio county of Perry. Glenford is likely populated by more bird dogs than people; the population is only 173. Yet it produced one of the state’s most powerful politicians.
Only in Ohio.
Coingate: A really bad investment by state government, conned by a major GOP donor
Of course, Ohio must have had its own government scandal with the suffix “-gate” attached. This is required since Watergate in the early 1970s.
Ohio’s entry was called “Coingate,” and yes, it was about rare and valuable coins, owned by a Republican donor and influence peddler named Tom Noe. And it was serious enough that it even resulted in the first case of an Ohio governor – in this case, Republican Bob Taft – charged with crimes while in office. Misdemeanors, but crimes nonetheless.
Much of the Coingate scandal was revealed in reporting by the Toledo Blade. It was a rather complicated affair, but it boils down to this:
The story broke in early 2005 – the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) invested millions of dollars in high-risk ventures run by people with ties to the Ohio Republican Party who had made large campaign contributions to top GOP elected officials.
The most prominent of those people was Tom Noe, a businessman and GOP campaign contributor who collected rare and very valuable coins.
Noe’s company had been awarded a $50 million investment contract with BWC.
The rare coin investment fund made headlines after it was reported that two coins worth more $300,000 had gone missing. That was just the tip of the iceberg. It soon became known that coins worth $10-12 million were missing and only $13 million of the original investment could be accounted for. Noe was convicted of running a criminal enterprise, the theft of $13 million from the fund and keeping a second set of books to cover up his crimes.
The governor, Taft, along with a top aide and an assistant, got sucked up into the Noe scandal when they were charged with misdemeanor crimes.
In August 2005, Taft pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor violations of state ethics laws. He admitted that over a seven-year period he failed to report 45 golf outings provided to him, along with a number of gifts from Noe. Taft was hit with a $4,000 fine.
It was the first time a sitting Ohio governor was charged with a crime while in office – a pretty remarkable feat, given the fact that Taft was the 67th Ohio governor, dating back to 1803, when Ohio joined the Union.
But that was not the end of the Coingate affair. Even though Taft couldn’t run for a third term and Noe was wearing a prison jump suit, the 2006 statewide elections were a wipeout for the GOP, as Democratic candidates pounded away daily at the “culture of corruption” they said the Republicans created in state government.
Democrat Ted Strickland was elected governor that year, while Sherrod Brown took out then-U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, and the Democrats elected an attorney general in Marc Dann – who ended up embarrassing them with a major sex scandal in his office. (More on that later.)
Jimmy Dimora and the collapse of Cuyahoga County’s corrupt government
In 2012, Jimmy Dimora – once the most powerful Democratic politician in Cleveland, was marched off to a federal prison to serve an eight-year sentence for racketeering and dozens of other federal convictions.
The Cuyahoga County commissioner was, prosecutors said, the biggest fish in a sea of corrupt Cuyahoga County political appointees who were lining their pockets with bribes at the expense of the taxpayers.
He had lived a very lavish lifestyle thanks to the bribes he took from contractors and others in exchange for his support on their projects.
Dimora, who had also been chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, was one of dozens of elected officials, contractors and county employees swept up in a year-long federal investigation into Cuyahoga County’s pay-for-play system, which had gone on for decades in a government run by political hacks and very few professional managers.
Nobody was hit with a longer prison sentence than Dimora, who was sent off to Elkton, a low-security prison about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland. And there he sits today, not scheduled for release until 2036.
By the time Dimora and his fellow bribe-takers marched off to prison, county voters approved a new form of government – with an elected county executive to run the day-to-day operations of the county, along with an 11-member county council to set policy.
Let’s Talk About Sex
Marc Dann turns the Ohio Attorney General’s office into a sex shop
The election of 2006 was a very good one for Ohio Democrats. But one that turned sour very quickly.
Ted Strickland, a former congressman and ordained Methodist minister, was elected governor, ending 16 years of Republican control of that office. Ohio Democrats picked up a U.S. Senate seat when congressman and former secretary of state Sherrod Brown up-ended the incumbent Republican senator, Mike DeWine.
It was such a good Democratic year that even Marc Dann, a relatively unknown state senator and lawyer from Youngstown, won the Ohio Attorney General’s office, replacing Republican Jim Petro.
It didn’t take long before Strickland and other Ohio Democratic Party leaders rued the day that Marc Dann became attorney general. They didn’t know it at the time, but the Ohio Democratic Party was in for a major embarrassment.
On May 2, 2008, after the firings and resignations of several of his top aides in a very public sexual harassment scandal, Dann – who was married with children – dropped a bomb on Ohio Democrats by admitting that he, too, had had an affair with a 28-year-old female staffer.
The young woman was promoted and given a 27% pay raise after the affair began.
Ohio Republicans in the legislature pounced on the admission and were ready to initiate the first impeachment proceeding against a state officeholder in 100 years.
Strickland quickly got on board with impeachment and removal from office, as did most of the Democrats in the legislature.
Dann tried to hang on for a while but, by May 14, the pressure became too great.
With Strickland by his side, Dann read a written statement to reporters.
“Unfortunately, the last step I must take as attorney general to resolve these problems is to resign as attorney general,” Dann said in the governor’s statehouse office. “It is my belief that this will preserve the great work being done by the office of attorney general.”
Dann took no questions and hustled out of the room. Strickland was left to talk to the media.
“This was not the failings of a party,” Strickland said. “I think the party responded strongly and forcefully to clean our own house.”
These days, Dann is a low-key figure, running his own private law firm.
The Ohio Congressman with a “secretary” who couldn’t type
In 1976, Wayne Hays – the Democratic congressman from Belmont County in eastern Ohio – had been in the U.S. House for 27 years, amassing enormous power over his colleagues as chairman of the House Administration Committee.
House members who crossed Hays could show up at their Capitol Hill offices on some sweltering hot Washington day and find that Hays had ordered the air conditioning be cut off to their offices.
Best not to cross Wayne Hays.
But, in 1976, when Hays fell from power, he fell hard.
All because of a strange, complicated affair he had with a “secretary” he hired, an attractive blonde woman half his age named Elizabeth Ray.
And when he fell, there were House members on both sides of the aisle who could barely contain their glee.
It was a story broken by the Washington Post in May 1976 quoting Ray as saying Hays hired her – and later gave her a raise and put her on the committee staff – to serve as his mistress.
“I can’t type; I can’t file; I can’t even answer the phone,” Ray told the Post.
Hays had divorced his wife of 38 years just weeks prior to the story breaking and married his Ohio office secretary, Patricia Peak.
Ray allowed a reporter to listen in on a phone conversation with Hays in which he told her that his marriage to Peak would not mean the end of his affair with her.
According to news reports, what really ticked off Ray was not being invited to the wedding.
“I was good enough to be his mistress for two years but not good enough to be invited to his wedding,” she said.
The story exploded in the national media. Three days after the story broke, Hays took to the House floor, where he admitted to most of the allegations but denied that Ray was on the federal payroll “solely for sexual services.”
He resigned as committee chairman in June and gave up his seat in Congress in September, going back to Belmont County.
The long, hard fall of Donald “Buz” Lukens
In five decades of covering politics, I have never seen a politician fall as hard and as far as Donald “Buz” Lukens.
Lukens, the Warren County native who died alone and nearly forgotten in Dallas, Texas, nine years ago, was thought of early in his career in the 1960s as a young Ohio Republican whose career was going places. He would, many in the party believed, be Ohio’s governor someday. Maybe even president.
It was all political-posturing by an incredibly ambitious man.
As it turned out, nearly everything about the former congressman and state senator was a fraud. Even his nickname, “Buz,” was a name he had given himself because he didn’t like “Donald” and needed a catchy politician’s handle to sell himself to voters. And he certainly wasn’t going to use his real middle name, “Edgar.”
After about a quarter of a century in politics, his career and his life had collapsed in a heap of disgrace, leaving him alone and abandoned after one personal scandal after another, all of them brought upon himself and all of which he tried to blame on someone else.
Watching his downfall play itself out was a pathetic scene.
In the 1960s, he became a political acolyte for then-California governor Ronald Reagan and one of Reagan’s young Republican leaders in the burgeoning conservative movement. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1966 at the age of 35, mainly for his hawkishness on the Vietnam War.
He spent four years in the House before deciding in 1970 to run for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. It was a case of Lukens allowing his ego to get the better of him, assuming that as the leader of Ohio’s “young Republicans” (he was nearly 40 at the time), that no one could take the nomination away from him.
But former state auditor Roger Cloud believed he could, and he did just that, defeating Lukens in the GOP primary. Cloud then went on to lose to Democrat John J. Gilligan in the fall.
Lukens still had some pull in the Ohio GOP and was appointed to a vacant state senate seat, one that he would hold through 1986.
He was not your typical obscure state senator, involved with national conservative figures such as Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich and Barry Goldwater.
Then, in 1986, something inexplicable happened.
U.S. Rep. Tom Kindness, who represented Butler and Warren counties in Congress, decided to give up a safe seat in the House to take on John Glenn, a national icon and a Democratic senator from Ohio. Kindness had no chance.
But Lukens was ready to jump into the fray, even though he already carried some baggage from his first stint in Congress, such as the cash gifts from Tongsun Park, a South Korean businessman who was indicted for bribing members of Congress.
Lukens wanted badly to return to Congress. His 10-year marriage to Toshika Davis, a model 21 years his junior, had ended in divorce a few years before and he was beginning to show signs of the throat cancer that eventually would take his life.
Lukens won the election, but it was not long before he was in hot water again.
In February 1989, a local TV station caught Lukens on camera at a McDonald’s restaurant in Columbus, talking with Anna Coffman, the mother of Rosie Coffman, a teenaged girl. They were talking about Lukens’ sexual relations with Rosie.
It wasn’t long before the congressman was indicted on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. It was alleged that Lukens gave the girl $40 and gifts for sex when she was 16. The grand jury was also told that Lukens had sex with Rosie Coffman when she was 13, but the grand jury declined to press further charges.
I covered the trial in Franklin County Juvenile Court during the last week of June 1989. My days were taken up listening to testimony from everyone involved, including Rosie Coffman, who repeated in very graphic detail what happened in Lukens’ Columbus apartment on the night of Nov. 6, 1988.
On June 30, a jury of four men and four women deliberated for an hour and 27 minutes before convicting Lukens on the misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and contributing to the unruliness of a minor.
The judges set aside the first conviction but upheld the second, giving Lukens the maximum sentence of 180 days and a fine of $1,000. He suspended all but 30 days of the jail sentence and ordered Lukens to attend sex offender classes and be tested for venereal diseases.
The judge, in his sentencing, called Lukens “a man with no remorse whatsoever.”
Almost every Ohio Republican leader was clamoring for Lukens to resign, but he refused.
Then on Oct. 23, 1990, the House Ethics Committee voted to investigate charges that Lukens had fondled and propositioned a Capitol elevator operator.
Lukens resigned from the House the next day.
But the legal system was not yet through with him.
In 1995, the task force investigating the House banking scandal charged Lukens with five counts of bribery and conspiracy, including taking a bribe of $15,000. After a second trial in 1996, Lukens was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
As all of this was going on, Lukens had several operations for throat cancer – he blamed it on being around too many smokers over the years.
His voice turned raspy; he had no saliva glands.
When he spoke, he had to stop about every 30 seconds to drink water, because he could no longer produce saliva.
After his term in federal prison, he stayed in Dallas, living in a small apartment, a mostly forgotten figure, until his death on May 22, 2010 at the age of 79.
Just Plain, Good Ol’ Hubris
Congressman Jim Traficant: When he fell, he fell hard, as would be expected of him
Just about everything that has ever been written about the late Jim Traficant – former sheriff of Mahoning County, congressman from Youngstown, and, eventually, jail bird, starts with the word “colorful.”
Well, he was that, with his loud voice, his shock of unruly hair (that proved to be a wig when he checked into federal prison), his ever-present cowboy boots, his preference for denim suits, and his habit of giving loud, long-winded speeches on the floor of the House that would inevitably end with him shouting Beam me up!, Star Trek-style, if he was particularly agitated about something.
He was a Democrat in the tradition of conservative Mahoning County Democrats – a Democrat who voted for Republican Dennis Hastert for House Speaker and once came to Hamilton County to campaign for the re-election of Republican congressman Steve Chabot.
He had no use for Bill Clinton, the Democratic president, once saying that Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, would make a good candidate for “governor of Beijing.”
As colorful and off-the-wall as Jim Traficant was, he was also a brazen crook, who was expelled from Congress – only the second to be expelled since the Civil War – after a federal jury in Cleveland convicted him of taking bribes, forcing employees to work on his Ohio farm and his houseboat on the Potomac, plus witness tampering and destroying evidence.
He could have avoided expulsion by simply resigning from the House. But Traficant was too stubborn to do that.
“I’m prepared to lose everything; I’m prepared to go to jail,” Traficant told his House colleagues as they debated his fate. “You go ahead and expel me.”
Traficant ended up spending seven years in federal prison.
Traficant wanted everyone to know that he was doing hard time in prison – no cushy prison for Jim. “It was tough,” he said.
“Most political figures go to some camps in country clubs,” Traficant said. “I didn’t.”
He didn’t waste his time while wearing a prison jumpsuit. No, not our Jim.
In 2002, he ran for his former congressional seat from prison as an Independent, taking only 15% of the vote and losing to Democrat Tim Ryan, a former Traficant aide who still holds the seat and is now running for the U.S. Senate. After Traficant was sprung from prison in 2009, he ran for Congress again. Again, he lost to Ryan, this time with 16% of the vote.
After prison, Traficant gave up politics and retired to a quiet life on his farm.
In September 2014, Traficant died at the age of 73 after an antique tractor he was driving flipped over on him as he was trying to park it in the barn.
In one year, one-third of Cincinnati City Council indicted on bribery charges
The reform-minded, “good government” advocates of the 1920s who brought about a council-manager form of government to Cincinnati to replace decades of corruption on the part of public officials must have been spinning in their graves throughout the year 2020.
That was when an investigation of political corruption in local and state government conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney of Southern Ohio resulted in the bribery indictments against three Cincinnati City Council members – Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld and Tamaya Dennard and Republican Jeff Pastor.
That is three more council members hit with felony indictments than in the previous 95-year history of Cincinnati’s council-manager form of government.
It was emblematic, said then-U.S. Attorney David DeVillars, of a “culture of corruption” at Cincinnati City Hall.
Here’s the lineup of the council members caught up in the federal investigation:
Democrat Tamaya Dennard was arrested on bribery charges in February 2020. She resigned from council, entered a guilty plea to one count of wire fraud, and is expected to start serving her 18-month prison sentence in June. The court also ordered her to pay $15,000 in restitution – which is the amount she was accused of taking from a riverfront developer in exchange for her vote on his projects.
Dennard resigned from council and Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney was appointed to take her place.
Republican Jeff Pastor was arrested on bribery charges in 2020, followed by Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld later that same month. Pastor and Sittenfeld were suspended from council by the state and both are fighting their charges in court. Two Republicans – Steve Goodin and Liz Keating – were appointed by the Hamilton County Probate judge to replace them.
Both the Pastor and Sittenfeld cases involved the same developer, former Cincinnati Bengal Chinedun Ndukwe, who wanted to re-develop the failed Convention Place Mall at 435 Elm Street Downtown. Ndukwe cooperated with the federal investigation. Federal officials said he helped them because he was frustrated by the pay-for-play culture on City Council.
The difference between the cases of Pastor and Sittenfeld is simple: Pastor was allegedly putting the money in his pocket; Sittenfeld, who was the leading candidate to replace John Cranley as mayor at the time, was allegedly soliciting contributions to his mayoral campaign fund from undercover FBI agents posing as associates of the developer in exchange for helping them get their project approved by City Council.
Sittenfeld and Pastor, of course, have the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. Dennard has admitted to wrongdoing and will pay the price.
But, even without the criminal charges against them, any substantive talks they had with developers with active project proposals before the city should never have happened – not under the council-manager form of government.
Some have suggested they were taking their cue from Mayor John Cranley, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing. But he routinely talks to and negotiates with potential developers, claiming that is part of his job.
Hard-core believers in the city charter – of whom there are many – would tell you differently.
Under the council-manager form of government, developers and others wanting to do business with the city are supposed to bring their proposals to the city administration – run, of course, by the city manager – and the administrations parses the proposals and goes to city council with a recommendation.
Council’s job, then, is to vote it up or down.
The so-called “culture of corruption” at City Hall is the direct result of council members butting into some place they have no place being.
The mind-boggling hubris of Cincinnati City Council’s “Gang of Five”
This has to qualify as one of the dumbest scandals in Ohio scandal history.
All it would have taken is for this “Gang of Five” Democratic City Council members to avoid a lawsuit they had no chance of winning was to understand that five constitutes a majority of nine – as in five council members on a nine-member council.
Ask a grade school kid – he or she could tell you that.
But in March 2019, the city ended up paying out $101,000 to settle a lawsuit after five Democratic council members admitted breaking the law. The council members – P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach, Greg Landsman and Wendell Young – admitted they had broken Ohio’s Open Meetings law by conducting city business in private text messages and emails.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman, in a lawsuit brought by Mark Miller of COAST (Coalition Opposed to Additional Taxes and Spending), signed off on a settlement agreement, since it was so painfully obvious that the Gang of Five broke the Open Meetings Act with tens of thousands of text messages and emails.
And one of them, Wendell Young, contends that he deleted those text messages from his cell phone before Ruehlman’s order. Earlier this year, after an investigation by a special prosecutor, Young became the only one charged with a criminal act – destroying evidence. A vote last week by council to suspend Young from office failed, but he may well ultimately be removed from council by the Hamilton County Probate Court.
The settlement in March 2019 ended up paying Miller $1,000; a $10,000 fine for Young for deleting his messages (also paid by the city); and $90,000 in attorneys’ fees. As is usually the case in such settlements, the plaintiff’s attorneys are the big winners.
In the lawsuit, Miller’s lawyer, Brian Shrive, argued that the five agreed through text messages on a united position regarding the firing of then-city manager Harry Black, without ever meeting in public.
The nub of the lawsuit was two news releases sent out by the five council members in March 2018 laying out their position on Mayor John Cranley’s desire to fire Black.
These releases got the attention of COAST lawyers, who wondered how the five came to a united position without holding a public meeting. After all, five is a majority of nine.
Basic arithmetic should be required of all city council members.
Howard Wilkinson is WVXU’s senior political analyst, having covered every Ohio gubernatorial race since 1974.
The “Trust In Local Government: WVXU’s Public Integrity Project” examines Cincinnati politics and the individuals who shaped it. Read more here. Support for this project comes from The Murray and Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation.