Days after being accused of hiring young, inexperienced staffers for key positions in the state Treasury, new evidence shows that Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, the Republican nominee for the state Senate race, dispatched a top aide to a beginner's course in the subject he was overseeing.
A roster of attendees for a seminar on the fundamentals of municipal bond law, held at the April 2011 National Association of Bond Lawyers, shows that Joe Aquilino -- Mandel's debt management director at the time -- attended the conference. The seminar is tailored for those new to the subject.
According to the brochure for the NABL seminar, its purpose was to help people "learn the building blocks of municipal finance and gain or strengthen basic knowledge of state, tax and securities law issues in municipal finance."
Aquilino, 26, had been the political director for Mandel's 2010 campaign for treasurer before being tapped to oversee Ohio's debt management, including issuing new bonds and working with the state's investment underwriters. Aquilino has since left that position to serve as political director for Mandel's Senate race against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
Wilson White, a municipal bond expert who spent more than 60 years purchasing bonds from U.S. states, including Ohio, said Aquilino's qualifications are troubling. White also owned his own municipal bond house and has published several textbooks on the subject.
"Just let me say to be a director of finance of a major state at 26 in highly unusual," White said. "I know of no parallel example that I’ve come across in all my 60 years of municipal bond experience. I just find it hard to believe."
Aquilino was admitted to the state bar on Nov. 8, 2010, six days after Mandel's election and two months prior to taking the debt management post, according to the Ohio Supreme Court's website. White said that to hold the position of director of debt management, he thinks that at a minimum, a person should have several years of experience in municipal bond markets.
"I say this as general rule rather than an accusation because I don’t know this guy; he may be the Einstein of bonds, but I find that extremely hard if not impossible to believe," White said. "I was brought up in bonds. I was jammed with bond knowledge by the age of 26, but I can’t imagine myself accepting such a position."
Mandel's state press secretary, Seth Unger, told The Huffington Post Thursday that Aquiliano was primarily a manager, while another staffer, Seth Metcalf, handled debt policy.
"Joe is a licensed attorney. He managed staff in the Debt Management Department, and worked under Seth Metcalf’s direction on debt issuances," Unger said. "Mr. Metcalf has extensive experience with debt issues, and continues to be the key person overseeing debt issuances in the treasurer’s office."
Calls to Aquiliano were also referred to the treasurer's office.
Mandel has come under scrutiny recently after accusations of cronyism surfaced regarding his choices for several key positions at the Treasury. A recent report in the Dayton Daily News shows that many of Mandel's top appointees came out of his 2010 Treasury campaign or went to college with him -- and that most are several years younger than the 34-year-old treasurer.
Metcalf, who left private practice to join the administration as general counsel and director of legal and financial affairs, also regularly attends state Board of Deposit meetings as Mandel's surrogate -- a substitution that has gotten increased attention in Ohio in recent months.
Mandel's hiring practices stand out because he levied several accusations of cronyism and poor hiring practices against incumbent Treasurer Kevin Boyce (D-Ohio) during his 2010 campaign. “Unlike the current officeholder, I will ensure that my staff is comprised of qualified financial professionals — rather than political cronies and friends — and that investment decisions are based on what is best for Ohioans," Mandel said in October 2010, according to the Dayton Daily News.
Mandel responded Saturday to the current scrutiny of his hiring choices, by saying, “I think in every position in our office that deals with financial transactions and important investment decisions about the taxpayers, we have qualified financial professionals who we are proud to stack up against past administration in Ohio and any treasurer administration throughout the entire country."
The premier speaker for the National Association of Bond Lawyers seminar this year is Ben Watkins, bond finance director for the state of Florida -- a position he has held since July 1995. Despite a difference in title, Watkins holds the same job that Aqulino did for the Ohio Treasury -- except that Watkins is leading the seminar, while Aquilino was attending it.
When asked about Aquilino's experience and his position working for Mandel in the Treasury and now for Mandel's Senate campaign, White said, "It sounds like pure patronage to me, and if it were in my state I’d be ashamed of it."
John Celock contributed reporting.