It’s hard to think of a state outside the Deep South where the Democratic Party has been more thoroughly whupped than Ohio. For over a decade, Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion and all statewide constitutional offices and had near two-thirds majorities in both state legislative chambers. Both US senators are Republican, as are twelve of eighteen Representatives. The sad fact is that the GOP has encountered precious little resistance on its path to hegemony; Democrats have been out-fundraised more than 2-to-1 and fight each other harder than they fight their Republican opponents. Lucas County, around Toledo, has two tribes of Democrats–the local press refers to them as Team A and Team B–whose members regularly battle each other for local office. “The Ohio Democratic Party is so terrible and ineffectual,” a friend who worked on the campaign in Ohio last year recently told me, “it ought to be taken into receivership.”
But things might be about to change. Thanks to the arrogance and corruption of the state GOP and the tireless investigative journalism of the Toledo Blade, every day Ohio voters are learning more about “coingate,” a scandal at once farcical and outrageous, that touches nearly every prominent elected Republican in the state and could finally pave the way for a Democratic resurgence.
The scandal starts back in 1997, when the state’s Bureau of Workers Compensation, which provides workplace injury insurance for Ohio’s workers, decided to start an “emerging managers” program that would allow outside managers to invest some of the fund’s $18 billion in assets. With then-Governor George Voinovich’s direct appointee at BWC calling the shots on who got the money, the $500 million set aside for the program offered a jackpot of prime contracts that could be doled out to supporters. In all, one hundred fifty-four fund managers were contracted to invest BWC money under Voinovich and his successor, Bob Taft.
Enter Thomas Noe, a GOP rainmaker (and Bush Pioneer) from the Toledo suburbs who, along with his wife, Bernadette, has contributed more than $200,000 to Republican candidates over the past fifteen years. Noe made his fortune in the rare coin business and somehow convinced the BWC that it could do the same. In 1998, he got a contract to invest $25 million of state money in coins, with 80 percent of the profits supposedly going to the state. It was an unorthodox deal: not a single other state invests in the completely unregulated rare coin market, and there was no supervision of Noe, who acted as the main assessor of the collection’s value and kept the coins stashed in warehouses around the country, all but one of which state overseers never visited. When the contract was reviewed in 2000, a state auditor immediately recognized the potential for self-dealing. Noting that Noe and his associates “could potentially be realizing profits on sales of coins to the [fund]” he warned, “such a situation presents a conflict of interest and potentially exposes both the managers and [the bureau] to allegations of improper activity.”
Not only did then-Republican State Auditor (and now Attorney General) Jim Petro ignore this warning, Noe was rewarded with another $25 million. The Blade‘s reporting has revealed that the auditor’s concerns were well-founded: 121 precious coins have disappeared, including two worth $300,000 that were “lost” en route to a business partner of Noe in Colorado named Mike Storeim, who’s since been accused of scamming the fund). Noe wrote off $850,000 of debt owed to the coin fund by another partner who had served a year in federal prison for laundering drug money, and after much prodding, Noe has now admitted that he can’t account for somewhere between $10 and $12 million in state money–cash that investigators suspect he stole.