Ohio Legislator Drafts Bill Aiding Nonprofit He Helped Create

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December 17, 2012; Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer

We all know that legislators at the federal and state levels direct government funds to their district or to pet projects; it’s known as pork. Earlier this year, the NPQ Newswire noted some cases where federal earmarked funding allocations went to nonprofits that included among their ranks a family member of someone in Congress. These cases may be eye popping, but as we pointed out, there was probably nothing illegal about it.

Along those same lines, earlier this week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote about influential Ohio State Sen. Chris Widener, who drafted legislation that benefitted a nonprofit he was involved in creating and where he formerly served on the board—a livestock exposition center in his home county. His private architecture and construction firm was paid for building the new Champions Center that was intended as a tourist attraction. When a bank asked for guarantors on a portion of the loan to build the Center, Widener was among those who stepped up.

Widener’s 2009 legislation is an amendment to a budget bill and was so carefully worded that it would benefit organizations promoting tourism in one county: the one where the Champions Center is located. The legislation was introduced only months after the Center received a nasty-gram from the county prosecutor’s office regarding delinquent property taxes, interest, and fees topping $500,000. The nonprofit operating the Center has received $410,000 from the legislation that was passed with Widener’s amendment.

Widener stepped down from the board of the Center to avoid conflict of interest concerns, and says he did so two months before the legislation in question was passed. The senator also sent a letter to the bank removing his guarantee of the loan, although that may not have been accepted (it may not be as easy to step down from being a loan guarantor as it is from board directorship). Did Widener step down in time to avoid this being a conflict of interest?

No matter the timing, Widener’s interest and commitment to the Center is obvious and an attorney who worked on the project has said that Widener probably had to know the legislation would benefit the Center. So, did Widener do his duty as a board director, taking advantage of a regularly accepted part of American government—pork—to attract needed resources to the agency? Or did he cross the line into conflict of interest territory by taking undue advantage of his role in Ohio government to help an agency that he was involved with at taxpayer expense? –Rob Meiksins