Ohio Nonprofit Loses State Space for Partisan Political Activity

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December 22, 2015; Cleveland Plain Dealer

An economic development nonprofit with close ties to Ohio’s state government got in trouble for crossing the line when it promoted participation in the upcoming 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on its website. And because of that, it will lose its state office space.

This came after the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on a fundraising solicitation for the Ohio Republican Party that the Association of Ohio Commodores posted to its website.

The privately funded, nonpartisan economic development group, which promotes the state’s economic development efforts, had been sharing office space with the state Development Services Agency for decades. While no state employees performed work for the nonprofit, it used a small desk space in the state’s offices in Columbus.

“Solicitation for a partisan activity is not in line with our policies, and therefore, we have notified the association that they will no longer have access to the desk space at the agency,” an Ohio Development Services Agency spokeswoman said.

The Commodores’ website prominently linked to a form for the state Republican Party’s “honorary delegate” program for the convention next summer. The program offers space in the party’s official hotel block and access to Ohio Republican Party events in exchange for a $2,500 donation.

The solicitation prominently displayed on the organization’s home page was later removed after the newspaper’s website inquired about what appeared to be a partisan fundraising solicitation—a definite problem, given its connections to state government agencies and officials.

The Commodores’ CEO said he did not intend for the message to be political, but simply “wanted to support a major event that will showcase Cleveland and attract visitors and money to the state.” The solicitation did not appear on any official state websites.

The Commodores were launched in 1974 to recognize Ohioans who promoted the state’s economic growth. Although it is a private nonprofit, its members are appointed by the governor.

Ohio’s Republican Party told the website that it had encouraged the group to promote the honorary delegate program, but that “we certainly did not ask them to market it in that fashion.”

But a policy analyst with Common Cause Ohio said the group’s ties to state government made the posting “questionable,” since the law prohibits the use of public resources for partisan political purposes.—Larry Kaplan