Taft TV ad found in violation of election law; Campaign promises to focus on positive

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — The campaign of Bob Taft was found to have violated Ohio elections law by making fraudulent statements in a television ad.

“We are extremely gratified that the commission has come out against the lies and the deception of Bob Taft,” said Alan Melamed, campaign chairman for Mr. Taft’s gubernatorial opponent, Lee Fisher, who brought the charges.

The Ohio Elections Commission, which has jurisdiction over all elections matters, ruled that the ad about Mr. Taft’s law-enforcement proposals had a “reckless disregard for the truth” by unfairly representing Mr. Fisher’s record as attorney general and an endorsement made by a police union.

“We heard the commission today,” said Brian Hicks, Taft campaign manager, who said the campaign will focus on positive ads now. “We accept the responsibility.”

Philip Richter, the OEC’s executive director, said he knew of no previous case of a gubernatorial campaign being found in violation. The commission issued a reprimand to the campaign as punishment.

Mr. Taft, who as secretary of state is Ohio’s highest elections official, and his running mate, Maureen O’Connor, were personally cleared of the charges because the commission found they did not have direct knowledge that the ads were false. Their campaign, Taft/O’Connor ’98, made the violations, the commission said.

The campaign could appeal the decision, but Mr. Hicks said he will recommend to Mr. Taft that they accept the ruling.

“Our campaign has been diverted by this,” he said. “We accept the decision.”

Mr. Fisher’s campaign had made four complaints to the elections commission about the ad, which began running on Sept. 18.

On two of those – one regarding a claim that Mr. Fisher had raised the attorney general’s public relations budget when he held that office, and another regarding a statement that Ohio’s police supported Mr. Taft’s policies on crime – the commission found no violation. On the first, the vote to find no violation was 4-3; on the second, 7-0.

But the campaign was found to have violated elections law on two other complaints regarding the same ad.

The commission voted 5-2 that the ad misrepresented Mr. Fisher’s record as attorney general. The spot claimed that Mr. Fisher had cut crime-fighting personnel by 15 per cent while he was in office, from 1991 to 1994.

Among the problems with that claim, according to Fisher lawyers: It included data from Mr. Fisher’s predecessor to inflate the “before” numbers; it excluded a group of special agents who changed departments but not job descriptions; and it improperly included one group of agents at the beginning of Mr. Fisher’s term, but excluded them at the end to create the appearance of a decrease.

“The numbers are just wrong,” said Republican commission member Robert Duncan. “They had the means to find the right numbers, and it took an utter disregard for reality not to go get them.”

“The figures were juggled to get whatever answer they wanted for their advertisement,” said commission member Dale Bayer, a Democrat.

The other violation the campaign made, according to the commission, was claiming that “Ohio’s police” have endorsed Mr. Taft. In fact, the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, which represents all police officers in the state, endorsed Mr. Taft, but the commission voted, 4-3, that it was inaccurate to say “Ohio’s police” had endorsed anyone.

Mr. Fisher’s attorneys said that five police organizations have endorsed the Democrat.

“Bob Taft has found his place in history,” Mr. Melamed said. “He will go down in Ohio’s Hall of Shame for being convicted of lying to the people of Ohio.”

But two commission members, who voted not to find a violation on all four counts, said the OEC’s votes were violations of the First Amendment.

“This is bastardizing the First Amendment,” said commissioner Mary Sullivan, a Republican. “Frankly, I’m shocked at what is happening.”

“I fear this will have a truly chilling effect on political discourse,” said Republican commission member William Connelly, a Toledo attorney.

Mr. Hicks said that he personally accepted responsibility for the commission’s decision, and that the Taft campaign has ordered both of its currently airing ads – both of them negative in tone – off the air immediately.

“Bob Taft will take full moral and ethical responsibility for this,” Mr. Hicks said. “He is ultimately responsible for this campaign.”

Today, the Taft campaign will debut an ad Mr. Hicks called “100 per cent positive” and which will feature the candidate speaking directly into the camera – something he has not done in any previous commercials, a point of criticism from the Fisher camp.

Mr. Bayer was the only member to suggest that Mr. Taft and Ms. O’Connor should be held accountable personally for the ads. “I just get tired of candidates sitting back and saying `I wasn’t involved in this,”‘ he said. “You need to be responsible for what your campaign says.”

The OEC does not have the power to levy any punishments other than a reprimand. It can vote to refer a matter to a criminal prosecutor, but it chose not to do so in this case.

Yesterday’s commission rulings come less than a week after Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge John Connor ordered a different Taft TV ad off the air because it was, in his words, “misleading,” “fraudulent,” and “false.”

The Ohio Supreme Court overruled Judge Connor on Wednesday, saying he did not have jurisdiction in the matter, and referred that case to the elections commission, where it is pending. A Fisher ad currently airing statewide quotes the judge’s comments.