New charges filed against Ohio Governor Bob Taft's former top aide have blazed a new trail between "Coingate" and the GOP theft of the 2004 presidential election.
Brian Hicks appears in court today to answer charges that he failed to report vacation trips he took to Coingate mastermind Tom Noe's $1.3 million home in the Florida Keys. A top Taft aide for a dozen years, Hicks stayed at Noe's place in 2002 and 2003. Another Taft aide, Cherie Carroll, is charged with taking some $500 in free dinners from Noe.
Noe is a high-roller crony of Taft, US Senator George Voinovich and President George W. Bush. Noe charged the Ohio Bureau of Worker's Compensation nearly $13 million to invest some $58 million. Ohio Attorney-General Jim Petro, to whom Noe once donated money, says some $4 million disappeared into Noe's pocket.
The new charges against Taft's former aide are at the edge of Coingate's links to Bush, Voinovich and organized crime. Through Noe's wife Bernadette, those links extend to the GOP theft of Ohio 2004.
Tom Noe, northwest Ohio's "Mr. Republican" and a close Bush/Rove crony, is under federal investigation for making possibly illegal contributions to the Bush/Cheney campaign.
As owner of Vintage Coins and Cards in Maumee, Ohio, Noe raised more than $100,000, to become a Bush Pioneer/Ranger.
But Noe was more than a mere fundraiser. The New York Times dubbed him Toledo's "Mr. Republican," the GOP "man to see" in northwest Ohio. While Tom chaired the regional Bush-Cheney campaign, his wife Bernadette chaired the scandal-torn Lucas County Board of Elections that played a key role in caging votes to put Bush back in the White House.
Noe's fortune came in part from charging the Bureau of Worker's Compensation (BWC) $12.6 million in coin-fund related expenses for managing the $50 million investment between 1998 and 2004. Federal and state officials are now investigating these expenses.
A "Ponzi scheme" is what Ohio's Republican Attorney General Jim Petro calls the method by which Noe may have stolen millions of dollars from the state of Ohio's Bureau of Worker's Compensation (BWC).
Petro says that on May 31, 1998, Noe received the first of two $25 million payments approved from then-Governor Voinovich's BWC. Noe promptly laundered $1.375 million into his personal or business account. Rolling in public money, Noe then asked to run a bizarre rare coin investment scheme on behalf of the BWC.
Meanwhile Noe laundered money into Republican Party campaigns. Among others, he and Bernadette made a $4500 contribution to then-Secretary of State Bob Taft's successful campaign for governor, at a time when Brian Hicks was Taft's top aide.
The Toledo Blade reports that Noe later gave Taft another $2500. Still another $2000 went to then-governor Voinovich's successful Senate campaign. And another $500 went to re-elect Petro, then the state auditor.
Mr. Noe's attorney acknowledged on May 26 that as much as $13 million in BWC assets remain missing. Petro says $4 million was illegally taken by Noe for personal use.
Noe's high-flying financial dance is rooted in the gubernatorial corruption of his good friend Voinovich, and a shady aide named Paul Mifsud. Mifsud was Voinovich's Chief of Staff and has become a statewide symbol of official corruption and illegality.
Mifsud's was responsible for much of Tom Noe's rapid rise. According to the conservative Columbus Dispatch, May 8, 2005, Mifsud paved the way for Noe's rare coin gambit.
Mifsud himself spent six months in prison for destroying the government records of a sweetheart construction deal he engineered for his then-fiancée’s house. Mifsud made the mistake of giving the bid to a controversial contractor named T.G. Banks, who allegedly did the job in exchange for state contracts.
Mifsud took both Banks and Noe under his wing. He made Noe Chair of the Lucas County Republican Party in 1992. Noe says the job "kept me alive."
In 1993, Noe testified in his divorce case that Mifsud and Voinovich's cohort Vincent Panichi were now his coin clients. Panichi later figured in a 1996 money laundering scandal involving donations from Banks' underage nieces of $1000 each to the Voinovich campaign.
Panichi also told a grand jury that Voinovich had approved a $60,000 illegal payment from his 1994 gubernatorial campaign fund to his own family's business, headed by his brother Paul Voinovich. The Governor later said Panichi probably told him this, but he hadn't heard it because his hearing aid was turned off or malfunctioning.
A very public high roller, Mifsud openly bragged of alleged ties to the CIA. He also claimed membership in the secretive Knights of Malta, running the Maltese American Foundation. The Knights and the CIA have been accused in various news reports of working together in covert operations around the globe.
Mifsud never talked to the Free Press. But the late Republican Franklin County Sheriff Earl Smith and other high-ranking law enforcement sources and Republicans say Mifsud's CIA connections were real.
Mifsud's own autobiography claimed service in "military intelligence" with the United States Air Force between 1966-1970. Columbus Alive revealed in an award-winning article that Mifsud was indeed the key player in spending millions of Ohio tax dollars to bring the CIA-affiliated drug-running Southern Air Transport airline to Columbus in 1995.
The infamous Iran-Contra airline went bankrupt in October 1998 after the CIA Inspector General confirmed printed allegations that a dozen of its pilots were linked to drug running. A downed Southern Air Transport plane led to the Reagan-Era Iran-Contra scandals.
Noe's Coingate goes to the Bush family through Mifsud, whose connections to George Herbert Walker Bush date from the 1970s. Regardless of his alleged CIA connections, Mifsud chaired Bush1's Cuyahoga County Bush for President Committee in 1979. Mifsud was also vice chairman for Ohio’s 1988 Bush for President Committee.
Mifsud was investigated by Ohio Inspector General David Sturtz during Voinovich's first term as governor (1991-1995). Voinovich fired Sturtz. But not before Columbus ALIVE uncovered Mifsud's role in helping Banks jump from being a bar room bouncer to the state's leading minority contractor, a major Voinovich donor, and the contractor of choice for Mifsud's girl friend's house.
As the Mifsud-Banks scandal heated up, Voinovich appointed Noe to the Ohio Board of Regents. Noe has no college degree. But in 1999, Taft re-appointed him to a full 9-year term.
On July 26, 1996, Mifsud resigned as the governor's Chief of Staff claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family. On October 9, 1997 Mifsud was sentenced to six months in the Union County Rehabilitation Center after pleading guilty to ethics violations for altering a public document in the Banks scandal.
Mifsud got a coveted daytime work release which, according to news reports, allowed him to continue work as a GOP fundraiser and operative. Tom Noe and Coingate may have been his last covert operation.
The Columbus Dispatch reported that Bush the Elder contacted Mifsud when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. Mifsud died in May 2000.
Three years earlier the Ohio Bureau of Workman's Compensation was caught up in a major scandal. BWC Chief Operating Office Steve Isaac was fired November 7, 1997.
Isaac then sued his former boss, Bureau Chief James Conrad, a longtime Voinovich operative. Isaac alleged he was fired for filing an ethics complaint against Dale Hamilton, the Bureau's Deputy Administrator for Special Projects. Dale is the son of Phil Hamilton, Governor Voinovich's Transition Chief and a powerful lobbyist for the then-Governor's family business, the Voinovich Companies.
Dale's mother Patricia chaired the important Ohio Board of Personnel Review. Issac claimed that he found documents in a briefcase that Dale Hamilton left in Isaac's office that "showed that Hamilton had used his inside status at the Bureau and the information to which he had acquired access through administering managed care technology, internal auditing and external consulting for the Bureau, to benefit Hamilton and Associates," his father's firm.
Essentially Hamilton was mining BWC data on emergency medical services and other health services and selling the information to Ohio municipalities for a cut of the reimbursements. Conrad threatened to sue the Columbus Alive weekly newspaper for reporting the story. He also threatened a private citizen with a lawsuit within 13 minutes of receiving her email complaining about Isaac's firing, the Alive later reported. Conrad resigned as BWC Chief on May 27, 2005, as Coingate began to erupt.
Richard G. Ward, Ohio's Inspector General, released a report on June 19, 1997 after an investigation of the BWC that noted "This experience served to illustrate serious deficiencies in the ability of BWC to objectively identify, analyze and deal with allegations of wrongdoing
within the agency."
In July, 2003, Taft gave Noe a seat on the Ohio Turnpike Commission for a term ending June 30, 2011. In Ohio politics, the Turnpike Commission is where the GOP and organized crime are known to meet. Its commissioners have included a long string of notorious alleged mob bosses such as Umberto Fedeli, appointed by Voinovich as its chair.
In August 1996, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Tommy Banks's Banks-Carbone construction company, suspected as a phony minority front company, bought liability insurance through the Fedeli Group, solely owned by the Chair of the Ohio Turnpike Commission. Fedeli refused to disclose his insurance agency clients who did business with the Turnpike. Fedeli resigned after printed accounts revealed that he had not disclosed his 1995 relationship with Banks-Carbone. A state contractor, S.E. Johnson Companies, received a $32 million construction contract in early 1996, the same year they switched their insurance to the Fedeli Group in 1996.
That year Voinovich attempted to appoint to the Turnpike Commission Carmen Parise, an alleged associate of James T. "Jack White" Licavoli, another reputed organized crime boss. Noe's Taft-appointed eight-year seat at the Turnpike Commission by Taft put him at dead center of a scandal-ridden office from which his coin operations could flourish.
Among other things, Noe used his political pull for insider favors like a coveted ticket at Ohio State's national championship football game in Arizona. Email documents also indicate Noe attended at least one "Ohio political strategy session" with GOP operatives Ken Mehlman and Collister "Coddy" Johnson, George W. Bush's Ohio campaign manager and field director. Karl Rove is listed as a possible attendee. As a Bush Ranger/Pioneer with unparalleled clout in northern Ohio and around the 2004 election's most crucial swing state, Noe was near the top of the national GOP food chain.
In April, the Toledo Blade reported that Noe was under federal investigation for making illegal donations to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. By all accounts, Coingate is still in the early stages of unraveling, and where it reaches, no one yet knows. But most serious observers of Ohio politics believe it will go very high.
The outing of how Noe and his wife may have used their clout to steal votes in Lucas County's "Votegate" has also just begun.
Election day in Ohio 2004 was defined by partisan chaos, confusion and theft everywhere in the state. But the Noe's Toledo was uniquely rife with corruption and illegality.
Well before election day, Lucas County's Democratic headquarters was broken into. Key voter data went missing.
On November 2, inner city voting machines mysteriously broke down en masse. Polls opened late. The Toledo Blade has reported that the sole machine at the Birmingham polling site in east Toledo broke down around 7 a.m. By order of Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, no paper ballots were available for backup.
At one school polling station the voting machines were locked in the office of the principal, who called in sick. The Gesu School in West Toledo temporarily ran out of ballots. There were huge lines, missing ballots and technical anomalies associated with the leased Diebold Optical-Scan voting tabulators. Lucas County BOE Director Paula Hicks-Hudson admitted that the Diebold machines had jammed during the previous week's testing, but the BOE did not bother to fix them for the election.
Sworn statements at public hearings in Toledo and Columbus confirmed that scores of citizens were disenfranchised because they had to go to work. According to the Toledo Blade, at the Birmingham polling site in east Toledo, the sole machine broke down around 7am. When Ohio Rep. Peter Ujvagi tried to cast his ballot an hour later, a poll worker told him to place his ballot in "a secure slot under the machine" so it could be scanned in later, after Ujvagi had left.
When voting rights activists challenged Republican Secretary of State Blackwell's controversial partisan handling of provisional ballots, Tom Noe sued on Blackwell's behalf. Bernadette Noe worked hard to reverse the traditional Ohio practice of allowing provisional ballots to be cast in precincts other than the one in which voters were registered. Her efforts helped disenfranchise innumerable Toledo voters, most of them inner city Democrats..
Ms. Noe also reversed standard procedure and banned public testimony at an open meeting meant to discuss a Republican Party challenge to 35,000 newly registered Ohio voters. The challenge was blocked by a federal judge.
But the election in Lucas County had become so infamous that on April 8, Blackwell fired the entire County Board of Elections. Bernadette Noe had announced her plans to resign in December, 2004. But Blackwell's desperate move was a slap in her face, especially since the Secretary of State himself is at center stage in deepening disputes over how Ohio's 2004 election might have been stolen. Blackwell served as Ohio's Bush-Cheney co-chair while running what he claimed to be a fair election.
Blackwell's investigation of the Lucas County BOE has been received with shock and awe around the state.
It cites no less than thirteen areas of "grave concern" including "failure to maintain ballot security"; "inability to implement and maintain a trackable system for voter ballot reconciliation": "failure to prepare and develop a plan for the processing of the voluminous amount of voter registration forms received"; "issuance and acceptance of incorrect absentee ballot forms"; and "failure to maintain the security of poll books during the official canvas."
Richard Weghorst, Ohio's Director of Campaign Finance, and Faith Lyon, the Secretary of State's liaison to county board of elections, found among other things that optical scan ballots received from a private printing company were left unattended and unsecured in a warehouse for nearly a month prior to the presidential election.
Ms. Noe was quoted in the Toledo Blade, saying, "It is important for everyone to remember that we had a good, fair, and accurate election in November, despite the fact that we were at the epicenter of the national election."
But election protection activists are swarming into Lucas County and have added to Blackwell's list a stunning litany of irregularities, all pointing in the direction of massive vote fraud for the benefit of George W. Bush, engineered at least in part by his friends Tom and Bernadette Noe.
Tom Noe has been reportedly liquidating his properties to pay back the state. But his financial sinkhole has already thoroughly tainted a deeply unpopular Taft regime.
The still-young Coingate and Votegate scandals have already catapulted the Bush/Rove Pioneer/Ranger Noe family close to the realm of headlines currently reserved for Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame.
But Ohio insiders predict much more to come.
Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman are co-editors of Did George W. Bush Steal America's 2004 Election? © 2005 Free Press