January 23, 2006
Rundown of Statehouse Ethics Scandals
By Stateline Staff
Investigations into political corruption and ethics violations roiled statehouses in 2005 and could cloud 2006 elections in several states.
- Ohio: Gov. Bob Taft (R) pleaded guilty in August 2005 to misdemeanor charges of accepting free golf outings and dinners from lobbyists without reporting them. His troubles grew out of an unfolding scandal dubbed "Coingate" involving Tom Noe, a Republican powerbroker who faces criminal charges and a civil suit after he convinced the state to invest workers' compensation funds in rare coin accounts that he controlled.
- Kentucky: Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) issued a pre-emptive general pardon last August for nine current or former members of his administration. They were indicted by a state grand jury for violating a state law prohibiting political hiring for the vast majority of civil service positions.
- Tennessee: The FBI capped a two-year undercover operation called "Tennessee Waltz" with the May 2005 indictments of five state lawmakers (four Democrats and a Republican) for extortion. The five, plus two associates, allegedly agreed to take bribes from a front company the FBI created.
- Illinois: Several criminal investigations into his administration are causing headaches for Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who faces re-election. In fall 2005, federal prosecutors subpoenaed records from three agencies regarding the administration's hiring practices and obtained two guilty pleas in a kickback and extortion scheme over investments in the teachers' pension fund. Meanwhile, former Gov. George Ryan (R) is on trial for 22 counts of corruption-related charges.
- Alabama: Former Gov. Don Siegelman (D) and several of his political allies were indicted last October after he declared as a candidate to win back the seat he lost in 2002. A federal grand jury alleged that he steered state business to contractors in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.
- North Carolina: Federal prosecutors served House Speaker Jim Black (D) with subpoenas in investigations into his top political aide and a lottery official Black appointed shortly after the state approved its new lottery.
- Nevada: Controller Kathy Augustine became the first statewide official in Nevada history to be impeached and convicted by an ethics commission, following charges that she used state equipment for her 2002 re-election effort. The Senate censured her in late 2004 but left her in office; the censure led to a conviction and fines in 2005.
- New Mexico: In September, authorities arrested state Treasurer Robert Vigil and his predecessor, Michael Mondoya, on charges of taking kickbacks. Vigil resigned his post when threatened with impeachment.
- Wisconsin: Former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala (D) pleaded guilty in October 2005 to felony charges for using a state employee to run a political campaign and for making an illegal campaign contribution to another Democrat. Three Republican lawmakers soon will stand trial on charges of using their staff for political purposes. Meanwhile, several investigations have been launched into whether Gov. Jim Doyle's (D) campaign took contributions in exchange for state contracts; Doyle is running for re-election this year.
- Michigan: Attorney General Mike Cox (R) accused prominent attorney Geoffrey Fieger, a Democrat, of trying to blackmail Cox by exposing an extramarital affair unless Cox backed off a campaign finance investigation in a Supreme Court race.
- Maryland: The Democrat-controlled Legislature began investigating in December whether Gov. Robert Ehrlich's (R) administration fired rank-and-file state employees after he took office in 2003 so he could hire more Republicans.
- Rhode Island: Former state Sen. John Celona (D) pleaded guilty last August to mail fraud for accepting more than $300,000 from health care companies to use his legislative office on their behalf. Celona and William V. Irons, then the Senate president, resigned their posts after the allegations surfaced in December 2003.
- Arizona: Freshman state Rep. David Burnell Smith (R) could lose his seat as early as this week for violating the state's Clean Elections law by overspending on his publicly financed campaign.
- Idaho: State Sen. Jack Noble (R) resigned in March 2005, shortly before the state Senate was to decide whether to remove him from office. Noble had proposed a bill that would have increased the value of a convenience store he was trying to sell without disclosing the conflict of interest.
- West Virginia : The FBI ran a sham candidate for a House of Delegates seat in the southern part of the state as the feds investigated vote-buying there. Two men - neither in the Legislature - have pleaded guilty, and further charges are expected in the ongoing investigation.