Over the last three years, Ohio has seen more than its fair share of corruption and ethical lapses in government. Our state treasurer and a congressman were recently caught up in a federal campaign finance investigation. Issues with Ohio's charter schools, largely unregulated by current GOP officials, have burst into the open. A number of state legislators have been prosecuted for illegal behavior.
Now, Ohio's Attorney General, the official that's supposed to crack down on corruption, faces a deepening scandal surrounding campaign contributors winning contracts from his office in highly inappropriate ways.
Attorneys general across the country award hundreds of millions of dollars every year in contracts to outside lawyers and vendors to do business on behalf of their states. Often these contracts involve complicated, specialized legal work, such as securities cases affecting state pension funds or the collection of unpaid debt.
Doing complex legal work on behalf of a state can mean big profits, so it's no surprise that lawyers, firms, and vendors make big campaign contributions hoping to influence the selection process. Since January, several Ohio media outlets have documented exactly that pattern: over $2.5 million in campaign contributions flowing to Attorney General Mike DeWine and the Ohio GOP while those same donors win lucrative contracts from his office. Throughout, DeWine has paid himself back $1.7 million of a $2 million personal loan to his 2010 campaign.
The facts are disturbing. Many contributions were made during or immediately before or after bids were under consideration -- sometimes checks came on the same day as bids. DeWine met more than once with his campaign fundraiser in his official office, and in one meeting in the middle of a bid process, they reviewed the roster of those seeking state work. The office has little to no documented process for scoring bidders and actually dumped scoring systems put in place by Richard Cordray, DeWine's predecessor.
There is even evidence that someone altered an internal score sheet in order to rig a debt collection bid in favor of a major GOP donor. That donor won a contract over experienced national firms despite the fact that he had only formed his company two days before the bid was announced, had zero experience in the field, and lacked licenses to conduct collections beyond Ohio.
It doesn't have to be this way. By making common sense reforms based on core principles of transparency and accountability, Ohio can get its own house in order and become a national leader in setting best practices for good government.
In the Internet age, there is no reason why every firm doing business with the attorney general's office isn't listed online, allowing the public and the media to easily track who gives and who gets major contracts. To end the unseemly practice of money flowing into campaign accounts at highly suspect times, campaign contributions should be barred in the period in and around the bidding process.
Firms and vendors should be scored based on merit and an objective set of criteria. This is particularly true in areas where performance is easily measured, such as the collection of unpaid debt. Experienced professionals and independent review panels should score bidders, not campaign fundraisers and lobbyists.
A state attorney general can't credibly crack down on other officeholders' corruption if he or she is one of that state's worst offenders. Indeed, the office should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one.
Ohio, with its prominent place on the national political scene, can and should be a shining example of clean, uncorrupted government. It's up to the Ohio Attorney General to lead the way.
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