Dirty Tricks in Ohio's Drug War

Gov. Bob Taft has violated state law in his effort to keep a drug-law reform out of voters' hands, according to the Ohio Campaign for New Drug Policies (OCNDP). A complaint with the Ohio Inspector

Gov. Bob Taft has violated state law in his effort to keep a drug-law reform out of voters' hands, according to the Ohio Campaign for New Drug Policies (OCNDP).

A complaint with the Ohio Inspector General alleges Taft, his wife Hope and the heads of two state agencies wrongly used their official capacities and public funds to derail a ballot initiative.

OCNDP is working to place on the November ballot an initiative allowing certain first- and second-time drug offenders to receive drug treatment instead of prison terms. The initiative is similar to Proposition 36, which California voters passed by a large margin in 2000.

To earn a ballot spot, OCNDP submitted a petition to the state attorney general, who is responsible for verifying that the language on the petition accurately represents the proposed amendment to the state constitution.

The attorney general normally issues verifications in less than three weeks, often within days. For reasons never explained, the attorney general spent nearly 11 weeks reviewing the OCNDP's straightforward 13-page summary.

Furthermore, the attorney general's office failed to follow its normal procedure of notifying the applicant when a petition is approved. OCNDP lawyers learned of the approval one week after the fact, while requesting an explanation for the delay.

Former State Rep. Ed Orlett, manager of the OCNDP, says the group learned of a fax communication from Domingo Herraiz, director of the Office of Criminal Justice Services, derogatorily referring to the OCNDP's attorneys and the ballot initiative.

This fax, along with the unexplained delays at the attorney general's office, led the OCNDP to believe there might have been communication concerning the petition between the attorney general's office and Taft staffers.

Opposition to a ballot initiative by private citizens or groups is a healthy part of the democratic process. Public officials, however, are prohibited from working against a ballot initiative, unless they do so as private citizens — on their own time, without using public funds or other resources.

This prohibition flows from the Ohio Constitution, which guarantees the right of all citizens to place initiatives on the ballot; and Ohio law, which forbids public officials from using their office, employment or authority to interfere with constitutional rights.

Suspecting the Taft administration might have been doing just that, the OCNDP filed a public records request for all correspondence about the ballot initiative. The group has compiled 200 pages of the resulting documents.

The collection of interoffice memos, e-mails, letters, reports and travel vouchers provides strong evidence that members of the Taft administration utilized public offices and spent public funds in an organized effort to thwart the ballot initiative.

The most startling documents contain plans to not only campaign against the initiative but to completely squelch it, denying Ohioans the right to vote on the issue. Notes from a meeting of Herraiz's department list three possible ways of defeating the initiative, one of which is to "defeat signature campaign."

Strategic options outlined in the Ohio Drug Reform Handbook, a play book compiled by the administration to defeat the initiative, include the following entries: "Stop CNDP Initiative from Appearing on the Ballot ... Work with AG (attorney general) and Secretary of State to Examine CNDP Signatures."

It is the duty of the attorney general and the secretary of state to verify petition signatures, but there is no legitimate reason for the administration to "work with" these offices.

Whether the attorney general or secretary of state would ever have allowed such illegal activity is unknown, but its inclusion in the administration's play book is unsettling.

Also included is the option of meeting with Peter Lewis, the chairman of Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance and a backer of the OCNDP initiative, to "discourage CNDP filing its Ohio Drug Treatment Amendment Initiative." This option was still in play one month later.

"Negotiate with Financial Supporters to Discourage Filing the Amendment," reads September 2001 meeting notes from the governor's office.

Asked whether public officials attempted to dissuade him from supporting the initiative, Lewis declined comment.

According Ohio Department of Alchol and Drug Addiction Services director Luceille Fleming, keeping the initiative off the ballot is the best option.

"The first line and best possible defense against the proposed constitutional amendment is to keep it off the ballot," Fleming wrote in a memo to Greg Moody, Taft's assistant for health and human services. "There are a number of ways we can organize to address these targets."

On July 17, 2001, Fleming, Herraiz, Hope Taft and her chief of staff, Marcie Seidel, met in Washington, D.C. with the Partnership for a Drug Free America, a nonprofit organization that opposed Proposition 36. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies for defeating the OCNDP's initiative.

According to copious notes taken by Herraiz and Seidel, there was no cursory analysis or research, which would have been both legal and appropriate, into the ballot initiative or its impact. The July 17 meeting notes, however, are full of media and public relations strategies: "Make it appear as if everyone is against it... Attack the issues of Prop 36 that are good from a proactive perspective... Alienate liberal voters from Prop 36 supporters... Play off the outsider perspective and the anti-California votes."

It is readily apparent Ohio officials are developing a strategy to defeat a citizen-sponsored ballot initiative. The group compiled a media to-do list: "Anti-Prop 36 public service announcements ... develop a media blitz ... use kids' stories ... keep soldiers in the field to monitor and attack the mis-messages."

The Taft administration's campaign against the OCND was not only waged during normal working hours and in public office space, it was also directly funded by taxpayers — which is prohibited by state law. Hope Taft, her chief of staff and Fleming used public funds to fly to Washington for the strategy session.

Hope Taft later hosted a meeting in Columbus with representatives from Ohio, Michigan and Florida. Once again, the stated purpose of the meeting was to defeat, not analyze, the ballot initiative and its equivalent in Michigan and Florida. The Office of Criminal Justice Services, a state agency, nevertheless paid all travel and lodging expenses for out-of-town guests, as if the meeting were normal state business.

But none of this is normal state business. None of this represents, or even resembles, the analysis of a ballot initiative. It is an organized campaign to defeat a ballot initiative or, better yet, to keep Ohioans from seeing it at all.

In addition to filing with the Inspector General's office, the OCNDP filed a complaint about the use of public funds to wage the campaign. But State Auditor Jim Petro found no evidence of wrongdoing. His analysis focused solely on the state's right to research and analyze the initiative, while painstakingly avoiding the glaring fact that no research or analysis took place. Petro examines the right law but applies it to the wrong set of actions.

If, as Petro claims, the Taft administration did no wrong, then why were Hope Taft's weekly "Prop 36" meetings changed to "SB 178" meetings immediately after the OCNDP filed its records request? Senate Bill 178 is similar in content to the OCNDP ballot initiative. As the Taft administration knows, it is perfectly legal for them to fight a piece legislation, but not a ballot initiative. Thus the name change.

The Taft administration has yet to be punished for interfering with the composition of the November ballot and conspiring to obliterate a constitutionally protected right.

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