Ohio senator's ties to ag nonprofit questioned


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A powerful western Ohio state senator championed a budget amendment in 2009 that benefited a hometown agricultural nonprofit he co-founded and financially backed, according to a newspaper investigation published Tuesday.

Senate Finance Chairman Chris Widener's ties to the Ohio Equine and Agricultural Association were detailed in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer (http://bit.ly/T3jmAy).

Widener, a Springfield Republican, was a member of the powerful budget-writing committee he now chairs when he pushed the budget change. He is in line to become the second highest-ranking senator in the state in January.

Widener and other local business leaders launched the nonprofit association to build a livestock exposition center on the Clark County fairgrounds, the Champions Center. Widener's private firm served as lead architect and construction manager on the 140,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 2004 -- when Widener was a state representative.

Widener told the newspaper he quit the nonprofit's board and canceled a loan guarantee he provided for its startup before introducing his amendment in 2009. The legislation allowed the burgeoning Clark County Convention Facilities Authority to charge a 3 percent bed tax that helped pay the nonprofit's expenses.

"I think it was a worthy project, I still think it's a worthy project, and I think I separated myself from any and all conflicts by doing what I did in May of '09 prior to considering anything legislatively," Widener said.

Around the time Widener pushed the amendment, the equine association was informed by a local prosecutor that $529,000 in unpaid real estate taxes, penalties and interest had put its lease in jeopardy, according to the newspaper. The property was eventually declared tax exempt by the state, but the association still owes $375,880 from before that decision, an Ohio Department of Taxation spokesman said Tuesday.

Jack Hawkes, former president and current board member of the association, confirmed the convention facilities authority was intended to benefit nonprofits such as the equine association. Authority minutes gave Widener credit for endorsing and making possible the convention authority's creation.

Hawkes said, "Nonprofits are the ones putting people in the hotels and restaurants and everything else here in town. It was something to help out those organizations, and obviously we are one of them."

The newspaper found the association co-founded by Widener has been the top beneficiary of the authority's bed-tax collections, receiving more than $410,000, mostly for operating expenses, since the authority was created in 2009. The Clark County Fairgrounds received the second largest amount: $328,000.

Widener's architecture firm, Widener Design and Construction, was paid just under 6 percent of the estimated $4.5 million to $5 million for its architectural and construction management work on Champions Center. Mark Weaver, representing Widener, said Tuesday that such a job typically yields a fee of 8 percent to 12 percent.

Widener told the newspaper he had no contact with the convention authority at all and no contact with the equine association after May 2009. He said, "There was never any financial benefit to those of us who were original guarantors of the Champions Center."

The senator provided the newspaper with a pair of letters dated May 1, 2009 -- one to Springfield-based Security National Bank canceling his loan guarantee, the other to Hawkes resigning from the equine association's board.

Widener declined the newspaper's request to allow the bank to confirm the cancellation.

Hawkes initially told the newspaper Widener remains on the association's board, and the nonprofit reported him to the Internal Revenue Service as a board member in 2008, 2009 and 2010 filings, the newspaper reported.

Hawkes later said he was mistaken: "Let's just say I forgot he sent me the letter. I have a large board. I wasn't sure if he was on it or not."


Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com