Thursday, June 01, 2006
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
TOLEDO — Saying he wanted to accept responsibility and spare his family and friends further embarrassment, indicted coin dealer Thomas W. Noe admitted yesterday that he broke federal laws to get credit for raising money for President Bush’s re-election campaign.
During a hearing before U.S. District Judge David A. Katz, Noe changed his not-guilty pleas to three federal felony charges related to illegally giving $45,400 to 24 friends, politicians and associates to donate to Bush in their names.
Katz delayed sentencing Noe until a pre-sentence report is completed. But according to suggested sentencing guidelines, Noe could face 2 1 /2 years in prison plus fines and probation, authorities said.
Federal prosecutors said they also plan to seek additional penalties because of the potential loss of public confidence in the presidential-election process.
Noe, a prominent Republican contributor at the heart of state-government scandals, had faced up to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $950,000 if convicted on all counts. But he decided to admit guilt before a scheduled July 24 trial, making him eligible for a reduced sentence.
In a separate state case, Noe also faces 53 felony counts and an Aug. 29 trial related to his handling of an illfated $50 million investment in rare coins and other items for the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. Authorities have said the federal prosecution doesn’t affect the state case.
Attorney John P. Pearson of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section said in court that there was no plea agreement with Noe on the feder- al charges and that Noe was pleading "straight up" to the federal indictment returned this past October.
Pearson said prosecutors would oppose any request by Noe to delay sentencing on the federal charges until after the state charges are resolved, but Noe attorney Jon Richardson said Noe’s legal team needs access to Noe for the state case. Katz said he would hear arguments on that issue later.
Noe answered "Yes, your honor" or "No, your honor" to Katz’s questions and read a brief statement before pleading guilty — saying he came to court to voluntarily accept responsibility and to spare his family and friends the "embarrassment of further court proceedings."
Prosecutors said Noe circumvented the $2,000 federal limit on individual contributions by giving his own money to "conduits" to contribute illegally to Bush.
Noe carried out the scheme to fulfill a pledge to raise $50,000 for the Bush-Cheney campaign at a 2003 fundraiser in Columbus. He told conduits to lie and say the money was a loan if asked, authorities said.
Federal officials have said it is "the most blatant and excessive" conduit scheme ever prosecuted under campaignfinance restrictions passed in 2002.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth D. Uram said in court that the evidence against Noe included financial documents and other records — including some seized from Noe’s trash — as well as testimony from as many as 43 witnesses.
Authorities have said that the conduits — or the "super conduits," who recruited other conduits in the scheme — typically aren’t prosecuted in such cases if they cooperate against the main target.
Even so, four current or former Toledo-area public officials who have been identified as conduits could face state ethics charges related to not reporting the money received from Noe. A special prosecutor has been appointed in that matter.
State Rep. Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, also called upon Bush to return the $45,400 from Noe and suggested that Bush send a check to the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Bush has donated the $6,000 received directly from Noe and his wife to charity and will make other appropriate transfers "as directed by the court."
But Redfern said Noe’s guilty plea is "an indication of the culture of corruption" permeating Republican-led governments in Ohio and Washington, and he said Democrats are prepared to remind voters of it in this November’s elections and the 2008 presidential race.
Republicans have sought to portray Noe and others implicated in wrongdoing as bad apples.
State Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown-area Democrat who is running for attorney general this year and was an early critic of Noe, said Noe should now cooperate fully with authorities to help expose any wrongdoing in state government.
"The fact is, Tom Noe knows all, and the time has come for him to tell all," Dann said in a statement.
Noe has pleaded not guilty to the 53 felony state counts including theft, forgery and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity. Auditors determined more than $13.5 million was misspent from the bureau coin funds.
He is free on bond pending the Aug. 29 trial, although he has asked to have the trial moved outside Lucas County because of pre-trial publicity. He also seeks to have the most serious count against him — engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, which carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence —dismissed.
Dispatch Senior Editor Joe Hallett contributed to this story.
©2006, The Columbus Dispatch