Former Republican Ohio Secretary of State and failed Gubernatorial candidate, J. Kenneth Blackwell may be mercifully out of office in the Buckeye State, but it looks as if his former constituents will continue to pay for his atrocious tenure in the SoS office for some time to come. That, in addition to the price they are already paying, along with the rest of the country, by suffering George W. Bush who remains in office due, in no small part, to Blackwell's abhorrent mis-administration of the 2004 Presidential Election.
Last week it was revealed by the office of the new SoS, Democrat Jennifer Brunner, that Blackwell got in his last licks by authorizing some $80,000 in year-end bonus payments to 19 different staffers in his office. The BRAD BLOG has obtained a copy of that memo (posted in full at end of this article) which includes type-written payment amounts to 18 now-former employees, along with the hand-written addition of a payment to be made to Blackwell's obnoxious press spokesman and noted democracy-hater, Charles "Carlo" LoParo.
The previously unannounced bonuses, along with the additional surprise revelation that payment for a $225,000 litigation settlement made by Blackwell last December was suddenly due just after Brunner took office in January, has left the new SoS with a $1 million shortfall to meet standing obligations for the office between now and the end of the fiscal year on June 30th.
Both matters were a shock to the incoming SoS who said the discoveries made her "kind of sick, really" as her office has suggested to The BRAD BLOG that there may be administrative and/or legal follow-ups to the issues. The Toledo Blade's coverage of the news as it was revealed last week is excellent.
The legal settlement, according to the Columbus Dispatch, was apparently "related to a lawsuit filed in November 2004 against Blackwell and the Lucas County Board of Elections on behalf of voters who did not receive an absentee ballot and were not allowed to cast provisional ballots."
All of that, of course, as the trial began last week against three Cuyahoga County Elections Officials who are accused of having rigged the 2004 Presidential Election recount while serving at the pleasure of Blackwell under County Election Director Michael Vu. Despite massive failures in 2004 and just about every election in the county since then, Vu has yet to be charged for that incident or any others.
The memo detailing Blackwell's farewell bonuses was signed by his former chief financial officer, Dilip Mehta, who approved $7,765 --- a full extra month's pay --- for himself in the bargain. LoParo's payment of $1,702, one of the lowest amounts listed, was added in what appears to be a handwriting other than Mehta's. That payment is earmarked, according to the memo, for "Carlo."
Naturally, it was LoParo who mouthed off to the media in defense of his old boss and the free, tax-payer largess he received from the state. He claimed the payments were "severance packages offered to members of senior staff," and that "depending on the severance package received, 10 members of the staff agreed not to accept unemployment benefits, which is a net savings for the office in terms of total pay-outs."
But a Brunner staffer has told us last week that 3 former employees had already filed for unemployment benefits. While they had been initially unable to locate any such "severance packages" last week, as based on the 'executive transition document' received from Blackwell, a spokesperson today has informed The BRAD BLOG they have now discovered the elusive "mutual separation agreements" that were signed by Blackwell and the former employees.
The office is currently uncertain whether they will be honored or not.
We're told the letters of 'agreement of mutual separation' also counter LoParo's claims that there would be a net savings for the SoS office for unemployment compensation that wouldn't have to be paid. The letters signed by the three employees who have already applied for such benefits, stated "that it is not intended to affect an employee's eligibility for unemployment compensation," according to Brunner's office.
"It seems Carlo and Ken are telling two tales that don't jive," the staffer wrote in a recent email in reply to our query.
The comments to the media by LoParo --- who also signed one of the "mutual separation agreements" himself --- are quite directly contradicted in the final graf of the agreement which speaks to the matter explicitly as follows:
This voluntary agreement allows for separation without a record of termination and is not intended to affect an employee's eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits should these benefits be needed.
As far as we know, however, LaParo has yet to apply himself for unemployment benefits.
For 'Outstanding Service Through the Years'
LoParo went on to tell a number of media sources that the money was "given because the secretary felt taxpayers had been given outstanding service through the years, and it was within his prerogative to dispense. It's not unusual and not unprecedented in the private or public sector."
It was unclear whether the disastrous administration by Blackwell of Ohio's 2004 and 2005 and 2006 elections were a part of that "outstanding service through the years."
LoParo took his usual cheap shots at anybody with the temerity to catch the office, yet again, with their hand in the cookie jar or thumb on the scale. "I would just have to chalk (Brunner’s comments) up to overall inexperience," he was quoted as mouthing off to several media outlets.
The staffer we spoke with from Brunner's office noted that the public sector is different from the private sector where such bonuses might be more run of the mill. "While these bonuses are not illegal," the staffer wrote, "in contrast to Carlo's contention that they are appropriate and customary, that is pure unadulterated balderdash."
Ben Piscatelli, a spokesman from the Ohio Dept. of Administrative Services backed up the assertions of Brunner's office. "It is not common for a state agency or elected official to pay bonuses, but there is no state law or policy that forbids it," Piscatelli was reported as telling the Columbus Dispatch today.
The treasurer's office did not return a call. With one minor exception in the Senate, there were no year-end bonuses for legislative staff in 2006.
While there were no such bonuses to speak of in 2006, other than from Blackwell's office, a report by Ohio's 10TV last week, said that 65 state employees at the State House received a total of $89,000 in bonuses in 2005. That, in contrast with the more than $80,000 in bonuses handed out by Blackwell to just 19 of his own staffers on his way out the door.
Legal Action Against Blackwell May Be Coming
Brunner's office has told us they intend to request an audit from Ohio's new Republican State Auditor, Mary Taylor "to assess the state of our agency now that Blackwell is gone." Whether or not Taylor will be willing to potentially take on one of her party's own local titans remains to be seen. Today's Dispatch article also quotes a spokesperson from the office of Attorney General Marc Dann, saying their "would look into the matter if someone asks."
We imagine "someone" will.
The memo containing Blackwell's $80,000 bonus list for 19 now-former staffers follows in full below...