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11-02-02: Reports track funding through Ohio loopholes
The Daily Standard
    Finance reports show a Cincinnati bank donated $5,000 to the Mercer County Republican Central Committee. Two weeks later, a  Columbus bank donated $5,000 to the same "state candidate fund."
    Both the amounts exceed the legal limits of what can be donated directly to a candidate. Donations to a state candidate fund are not as restricted.
    Weeks later, $10,000 was donated to Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's "Ohioans for Blackwell" reelection committee, from the account that took in the two donations.
    Blackwell's challenger Bryan Flannery says the secretary of state is "circumventing" campaign finance laws by having contributions "funneled" through Mercer County.
    Blackwell's office contends the donation from Mercer County's "state candidate fund" to Ohioans for Blackwell was fully legal and fully disclosed.
    "Here's a guy who's campaigning on campaign finance reform, and he's funneling money through legal loopholes," Flannery told The Daily Standard during a telephone interview Friday. "It's legal money laundering."
    Norman Cummings, a spokesperson for the Ohioans for Blackwell campaign said there was no wrong-doing in Mercer County Republicans donating to Blackwell.
   "What is legal money laundering? If it's legal how can it be laundering?" Cummings rhetorically asked. The donations were "fully disclosed in accordance with the law."
   In late January the Mercer County Republican Central Committee issued a check to Blackwell's campaign from the committee's state candidate fund for $10,000. In that account at the time was $10,285.
   Fifth Third Bank's political action committee (PAC) of Cincinnati made a $5,000 donation in January. Weeks before, in December, Bank One Corp PAC donated $5,000 to that same fund, according to campaign finance reports.
    The December donation was deposited Dec. 31, putting it on the 2001 reports. The second donation came in January, putting it in the 2002 reports.
    According to the secretary of state's Web site on campaign finance, Blackwell's $10,000 donation from Mercer County was included on his 2001 finance report, though it was received on Jan. 24, 2002.
    The legal limit PAC's can contribute to candidates is $2,500 per election.
    "Here's the secretary of state, whose supposed to uphold these laws ... but he's not doing it because he's benefiting from it," Flannery said. "It's a laundry machine and the people are sick and fed up with it."
    Cummings said state candidate funds from around the state were "crucial" to Blackwell's campaign.
    Flannery said he estimates Blackwell raked in $700,000 funneling dollars through county committees.
    "These state candidate funds are frankly a complication of a very complicated reform law of 1996," Cummings said, adding that one of Blackwell's goals is to require that state candidate funds are filed with the secretary of state's office rather that in county offices.
    "We believe a centralize repository would be a more fully disclosed source of funding contributions," Cummings said of the goal.
    Cummings said that Flannery has been too "loose" with his public comments.
    "He's been so loose the elections commission has found him in violation of the law," Cummings said. "He talks a good game, but all his term in the legislature, up until this year, he never showed any evidence of even being able to spell campaign reform, let alone introduce any legislation."
    Mercer County Republican Central Committee Chairman Owen Hall said the donation to Blackwell's campaign was legitimately done within the boundaries of the law.
    "We've done this in previous years, these funds are submitted to us and I think we can use them as we like," Hall said Friday.
    "Several years ago we established that fund, I researched it very carefully with Columbus attorneys because I didn't want to expose our county to any liabilities," Hall continued. "And I'm sure this is within the election laws and provisions."
    Mercer County Democrat Central Committee Chairman Mark Uhlenhake said state money funding local races and outside money moving through Mercer County makes him "sick to his stomach."
    When asked if the bank donations were "earmarked" for Blackwell when they were sent to Mercer County, Cummings said, "I don't know what earmarked is. Celina certainly knew that were trying to help raise money for us ... of course, that's what state candidate funds are for.
    "Ultimately it's the decision of the Mercer County party, not ours, where the money goes," he continued.
    "We should know who's influencing these elections and where the money is coming from," Flannery countered.
    Earlier this month The Associated Press reported that Democrat candidates have pointed out similar funding transactions in races for state treasurer and attorney general.
    Blackwell this month said he will audit the campaign finance reports of four counties that Democrats claim are funneling money to statewide candidates. They are Clark, Geauga, Mahoning and Montgomery counties.


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