Central Ohioans will vote in a really big race this year. If you guessed President of the United States, you guessed wrong.
The big-little race this year is who the next Franklin County prosecutor will be: Republican Ron O’Brien or Democrat Zach Klein.
Political legacies hang in the balance, maybe even jail time for some political unfortunates who have so far escaped the long arm of the law. Justice delayed is justice denied, and for those who have operated in the shadows—allegedly some of Ohio’s top leaders—the Day of Reckoning could come as early as Wednesday, Nov. 9 if the Republican incumbent fails to win a fifth term.
Is Lady Justice Blind Or Just Faking It?
Ron O’Brien, the Republican incumbent in question, has decades of government experience including 20 years as Franklin County Prosecutor. In his last election in 2012—another presidential election year that rewarded Democrats like President Obama and U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown with wide margin wins—Mr. O’Brien skated to an easy win, securing nearly as many votes [320,291] votes as the president [346,373] and the senator [339,260].
Mr. Obama and Mr. Brown had determined, well-funded challengers competing against them: Mitt Romney and State Treasurer Josh Mandel, respectively. Ron O’Brien won 100 percent of the vote because he had no challenger, Democratic or independent.
Mr. O’Brien’s sad surprise is that he’ll have a challenger this election cycle, and it’s a challenger who won’t be a pushover. Democrat Zach Klein is an attorney and a respected member of Columbus City Council who led the slate of council candidates last fall with the most votes .
Klein is expected to marshal his resources to undertake what no one has dared do for two decades: displacing Mr. O’Brien from his perch atop the ladder of Franklin County justice.
With state government and The Ohio State University as two big assets, Franklin County has shifted increasingly to “blue” county political status. It’s a good hunting ground for candidates who can tap into the expanding base of Democratic and independent voters, and it has enabled Democrats to firmly control offices from Columbus City Council seats to county commissioner offices.
One important issue that could come up in this race is why Mr. O’Brien uses his powers in different ways for different people. Mr. Klein will no doubt advance his portrayal of Mr. O’Brien as a prosecutor who uses his authority as a weapon against some, but withholds it when officials in his own party come into the public’s cross-hairs.
This campaign recipe may already be baking, and not because of any campaign plan from Zach Klein but from what Ron O’Brien has failed to do, which portends to undo him.
At issue is the corruption that many believe is wide-spread throughout the administration of Gov. John Kasich, on which Plunderbund has previously reported.
One specific issue is David Hansen, the man behind the illegal falsification of charter school data. He was forced to resign suddenly last year when he admitted his illegal activity to the state school board. Further upping the ante is the fact that David Hansen is married to Gov. Kasich’s current presidential campaign manager and former state chief of staff. When Gov. Kasich was confronted with what Mr. Hansen did, Ohio’s term-limited governor said that once Beth Hansen’s husband resigned, that ended the matter for him, and others should follow suit.
Few reporters, if any, have confronted Ohio’s crusty governor on the issue, which has divided the State School Board and led to the resignation of Gov. Kasich’s superintendent of education, Dr. Richard Ross.
Meanwhile, media following Mr. Kasich in Iowa or New Hampshire have no clue about what’s bubbling back in Ohio, even though it looms as a scandal begging to be born. As is its custom, Camp Kasich has lowered the cone of silence over it all. Shinning light on it—as a good county prosecutor without concern for whose political ox is gored in the process is bound by duty to do—could deliver coronaries to some administration hires who have come and gone over Gov. Kasich’s five years in office.
Ohio media has largely been indifferent, but adversaries are sharpening their axes. One of them, ProgressOhio, a left-of-center advocacy group that has relentlessly hammered Gov. Kasich over his widely believed unconstitutional group called JobsOhio, is on the march again, this time on the trail of Mr. Hansen.
ProgressOhio has sent a letter to prosecutor O’Brien asking him to launch a grand jury investigation into Ohio’s efforts to conceal poor grades for some chronically failing online charter schools.
“I cannot help but compare the ongoing data-scrubbing scandal at the state education department to the recent data-scrubbing scandal at Columbus City Schools,” PO’s leader, Sandy Theis, wrote. “Columbus employees falsified student records to improve their schools’ standing on state report cards. Hansen doctored state ratings to improve the standing of traditionally low-performing charter schools.”
Theis, a widely respected journalist who turned her talents to advocacy, continued to make her point on who Mr. O’Brien goes after and who he doesn’t.
“While the (Columbus) investigation showed no evidence that then-Superintendent Gene Harris orchestrated the cheating, she received one year’s probation for dereliction of duty,” Theis said in her letter. Meanwhile, David Hansen has admitted to omitting some F grades for online schools from a key charter school evaluation, she said, noting, “The omission not only made it appear as if some of the state’s worst-performing charters were doing well, it also could have made the schools eligible for new state perks.”
In response, Mr. O’Brien sent Ms. Theis his own letter: “When a citizen or group claims a crime has been committed the matter must be investigated by a law enforcement agency with jurisdiction or by a relevant state office or agency. Grand jury proceedings follow the investigation conducted by law enforcement or the relevant investigative agency, and on occasion this office may review the work with the investigators in the process.”
Mr. O’Brien restated his belief that State Auditor David Yost is looking at the potential crimes “outlined by ProgressOhio” and “will identify any matters to be a violation of law.”
Republican gamesmanship on whether the husband of Gov. Kasich’s campaign manager will get off scot free or be brought to justice is already providing fodder for Mr. Klein.
The Associated Press reported that Ron O’Brien said he’s awaiting findings of an ongoing investigation by State Auditor Dave Yost, who coincidentally is among Gov. Kasich’s presidential campaign co-chairs. The auditor said that a special audit of the charter office would not include Hansen’s actions because no public money was ever disbursed to the affected charter school sponsors. Mr. O’Brien told the AP that a regular audit of the Ohio Department of Education was still underway, from which referrals could be made. Yost has yet to offer a comment, the AP wrote.
When Auditor Yost tried to review the books for JobsOhio, Mr. Kasich’s pet, private job creation group, Kasich bristled. A friendly GOP-controlled legislature quickly trimmed the state auditor’s statutory powers, passing a bill to keep him from auditing the largely unsuccessful group’s books.
Mr. Hansen engaged in similar data rigging before being hired as Director of School Choice at the Ohio Department of Education (another Plunderbund exclusive story). It’s hard to believe that being married to the governor’s chief of staff wasn’t a factor in his hiring by Richard Ross, who Gov. Kasich hand-selected to run state schools but has since resigned in the wake of what Hansen did.
Further complications have arisen from Mr. Hansen’s illegal activity. The U.S. Department of Education awarded Ohio a $71 million federal grant, based on David Hansen’s work. Those funds have now been placed under watch as the program is sorted out, reports say. It should also be remembered that when David Hansen wrote ODE’s grant, which was based on his false figures, he not only deprived other states whose grants were legitimate from receiving some or all of the $71 million but he likely violated federal laws.
State Superintendent Richard Ross is refusing to say whether thousands of students enrolled with Mr. Lager’s online school system, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, will be reviewed an oversight agency even though he was told by state school board members that omitting them would violate state law.
What does all this mean for Ron O’Brien and Zach Klein? It means something to Ron O’Brien, who reportedly got in Klein’s face at a recent mixer, pointed-finger a-wagging. Wishes for a Happy New Year probably wasn’t what got the top cop exercised.
For tuned-in statehouse watchers, the potential fallout from a looming scandal bodes ill for Ron O’Brien. One seasoned source contacted by Plunderbund labeled Mr. O’Brien a “dead man walking.”
John Kasich has relied on many people and institutions to protect him. The Ohio Supreme Court protected him from a constitutional challenges to his signature creation, JobsOhio. He got relief from GOP wing-men in the legislature to avoid confronting politically disastrous legislation like right to work and the “Heartbeat” bill.
He was safeguarded by state watchdog agencies, to wit, the Ohio Ethics Commission and The Ohio Election Commission, who chose not to not pursue investigations into conflicts of interest with JobsOhio or the people and circumstances at the heart of a case sitting before a Franklin County Administrative judge. At issue are activities of long-time political friends and operatives who allegedly engaged in illegal campaign finance activities to clear John Kasich’s path to easy victory in 2014.
Lower on the food chain of public officials who could rain big-time on the governor’s parade is the Franklin County Prosecutor. The duty of the office is to pursue corruption on behalf of the public. Waiting around as Mr. O’Brien is doing until some one else acts first, maybe State Auditor Yost, violates the public trust. The political Catch-22 for Mr. O’Brien is Auditor Yost has punted, saying it’s not part of his scope of action.
Commenting on the prosecutor’s statement, Ms. Theis at ProgressOhio said, “Ron O’Brien has the discretion to initiate a grand jury investigation into this and any matter of great public importance. It was been six months since Mr. Hansen resigned and six months since Republicans on the state school board said he broke the law. Good investigators know that the longer it takes to get started, the colder the trail becomes. The time to act was months ago.”
It’s a political Hobson’s Choice for Ron O’Brien: if he doesn’t prosecute David Hansen, who has already admitted to his crime, he opens the door wide to charges of racism, in light of his prosecution of mostly African-American Columbus school officials, who were caught falsifying attendance records even though state procedural directives were unclear.
Allowing David Hansen to fade away, as Gov. Kasich would like Ron O’Brien to do, creates the evidence Mr. Klein needs to make a case for disparate treatment of blacks versus whites like David Hansen and other Kasich Administration staffers.
If Mr. O’Brien dares to prosecute Mr. Hansen or others, that will necessarily include links to John Kasich and others close to him. Those others could include William Lager and David Brennan, two large political campaign donors who rake in millions in state subsidies vacuumed from public budgets that further pad the top lines of their for-profit charter school operations.
Brennan and Lager likely stood to benefit from the $71 million in federal grants had federal officials not turned off the spigot as they revisit the award. It’s no stretch to think that someone who covered up failing grades with passing grades, in order to protect political revenue streams, wouldn’t then award those same for-profit charter school sponsors a good lick from the DC honey jar.
Mr. Hansen appears to have evaporated from view. His wife Beth Hansen has been very busy managing Gov. Kasich’s campaign for President of The United States. Camp Kasich supporters receive regular updates from her on how well her boss is doing. Gov. Kasich has his miracle in Ohio story to tell, but it doesn’t mention how poorly Ohio’s charter school scheme works or that Mr. Kasich would be spending more time in Ohio than he is in New Hampshire but for prosecutorial myopia that’s allowed violations of the public trust to go unchallenged.
Pursuing public integrity as a good county prosecutor should, could help topple the party, maybe even the sitting governor. Gov. Kasich is trying, desperately, to remain relevant by not falling out of consideration as the GOP’s nominee for president. Nearly all polls show Gov. Kasich lagging behind his fellow challengers by wide margins nationally and in nearly all states, including New Hampshire, the only state where he’s still afloat.
Some national reporters think spending time on John Kasich and his record isn’t warranted because he’s not part of the national conversation. Other pundits, closer to home, are starting to understand what the message John Kasich isn’t delivering to virgin Granite State ears.
Running Against Ron
Zach Klein has a wide-open field to take on Ron O’Brien. Given the modern voting dynamics of Franklin County, John Kasich and his Lt. Governor, Mary Taylor, have a lot to worry about if Mr. Klein should find himself victorious next November.
Plunderbund broke the story on Taylor staffers “goldbricking” and doing political work for the reelection of Kasich-Taylor last year on state time. Ohio Inspector General Randal Meyer, appointed by Gov. Kasich, issued a report on Taylor’s staffers’ illegal activity.
That report completely left out the political work they did for their bosses undertaken on state time. Prosecutor O’Brien could have taken action long ago, but he lets it sleep with the fishes. Mr. Klein may not be so charitable. The governor and others may have some sleepless nights going forward if Ron O’Brien isn’t there to keep the hunting dogs chained up.
It wasn’t that long ago, back in 2006, when Ohio Republicans were booted out of statewide offices in the wake of “pay to play” schemes hatched during the administration of former GOP governor Robert Taft. “Coingate,” the scandal that ensnared state leaders giving millions in state workers’ compensation funds to a trader of coins in exchange for campaign donations to GOP candidates was the big corruption story.
A decade later, many believe Mr. Hansen is the tip of a new iceberg of corruption, this time on the watch of Gov. Kasich and his administration. Insulated by party loyalists who know not to open the many cans of worms that are bulging, Ron O’Brien’s decision to placidly look on won’t bode well if he refuses to let the chips fall where they may, regardless of whom they fall on.
Saint Peter Rethinks Kasich
When Gov. Kasich doesn’t become president, or vice president, and returns to finish out his final two years in office, instead of walking his way into history as the plucky CEO son of a mailman who “never gives up,” he might find depositions, pubic records requests and a trial or two to look forward to.
Saint Peter will certainly have more questions to ask him if that happens. His answer to that one is, as only the Lord knows, shaky at best.