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Columbus--A state probe of the campaign to pass Ohio’s marriage ban amendment three years ago will begin once a special counsel is selected, says the secretary of state’s office.
A complaint filed in March by the watchdog group Progress Ohio accuses the amendment’s backers of using a charity to hide donors to that campaign and another one, an unsuccessful attempt to retain Cincinnati’s anti-gay charter amendment.
Both campaigns were run by groups connected to Citizens for Community Values of Sharonville, Ohio, and its president Phil Burress.
Ohio law requires political campaigns to report their contributors and expenses. But non-profit charities don’t have to name their donors.
Non-profits are allowed to make limited contributions to ballot initiatives in line with their expressed mission--but they cannot finance entire campaigns.
The Progress Ohio complaint is the latest in a line of similar ones against Burress and CCV, going back to 1993. Many of these have accused CCV groups of routing contributions through non-profits, which then gave the money to the campaigns in their own name. None have resulted in any action.
Last year the Ohio Elections Commission heard a complaint by Equality Cincinnati president Gary Wright and former mayor Bobbie Sterne.
The commission called their findings an “administrative dismissal,” meaning they were done with the case, even though they did not consider its merits.
Progress Ohio’s complaint is based on CCV Action’s tax return for the time of the campaign, filed last October.
The non-profit CCV Action told the Internal Revenue Service that it used “newspaper ads, radio ads and television ads” to amend the Ohio Constitution to ban same-sex marriage in 2004.
Progress Ohio contends those activities constitute a campaign, and that CCV Action acted as a campaign committee, violating Ohio election law.
Their complaint asks Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to investigate.
However, Brunner has a conflict of interest in that her husband’s law firm represented Wright and Sterne, and she worked on that case.
Before she was elected secretary of state last November, Brunner was an election attorney, then a Franklin County judge.
Brunner’s spokesperson Patrick Gallaway said her office sought an opinion from Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann as to who, in this case, could conduct an investigation.
Gallaway said that Dann’s office said in April that the investigation had to stay with the secretary of state’s office.
“Jennifer Brunner is taking this very seriously,” said Gallaway.
This led to a search for a special counsel--an attorney with no conflict--to independently conduct an investigation and report the findings.
That search hit a snag, according to Gallaway, when Brunner’s office ran out of money.
He said that Brunner’s predecessor, Ken Blackwell, “spent two-thirds of the office’s budget in half the [fiscal] year.”
Those expenditures included $80,000 of bonuses Blackwell paid to top aides before leaving office. Those payments are under investigation.
Gallaway explained that Brunner’s office had to ask the State Controlling Board for permission to use fees collected for its business services to operate the elections unit and meet payroll through the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The board granted the request in mid-May, allowing the search for special counsel to go forward.
Gallaway said the office is “close to choosing someone.”
Progress Ohio president Brian Rothenberg said his group wants Brunner’s office to do “whatever puts impartiality into this.”
Rothenberg is highly critical of the Ohio Elections Commission, calling them “toothless.”
“They just decided to act against [coin dealer] Tom Noe, and he’s been in jail six months,” Rothenberg said.
The commission found that the GOP fundraiser illegally funneled campaign contributions to state candidates through other people on May 30, and referred the matter for prosecution.
Noe has been serving a 27-month sentence in a federal prison for illegally raising $45,000 for George W. Bush in 2003.
“If the special counsel determines it is perfectly acceptable for [CCV Action] to act as a campaign committee, and doing electioneering, they will be creating a huge loophole in Ohio law,” said Rothenberg.
Asked if the funding delays could cause the statute of limitations to run out on any criminal activity CCV Action or its officers may have committed, Gallaway said, “There could be some hurdles, depending on what the potential violations are.”
Gallaway expects the special counsel to issue a report by fall.