It’s a pattern we have become familiar with:
- Columbus Dispatch breaks a controversial news story;
- The central Ohio newspaper reports suspicious activity of public officials;
- Published stories result in an investigation by the State Auditor;
- State Auditor launches months-long investigation that includes state agency;
- And finally, the Auditor finds that the laws and guidelines were not sufficient to find anyone guilty of breaking any laws.
We’re talking, of course, about use of the state plane by Lt. Governor Mary Taylor and Speaker William Batchelder, though we understand if you thought we were talking about the investigation into school attendance records as the stories have a remarkably similar trajectory and should end in much the same way.
The story about state plane usage began when the Dispatch initiated the investigation (credited on page 5 of the Auditor’s report) through their reporting via information gained through public-records requests. The newspaper repeatedly published the specific details of Taylor’s personal reimbursement to the state for flights deemed to be an inappropriate use of the state’s aircraft. Some highlights from reporter Joe Vardon include:
State Auditor Dave Yost has pledged to examine whether Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor’s and other government officials’ use of state planes was for a “proper, public purpose,” the auditor’s spokeswoman said today.
The probe of Taylor’s trips, which were first documented by The Dispatch, will be part of a larger look at how state aircraft have been used…
An examination of Taylor’s official schedule and state plane records, obtained by The Dispatch through public-records requests, shows that Taylor had no meetings (and two conference calls with staff members) for 10 days after July 15 when she took a morning flight from Columbus to Sidney — about 75 miles away.
On Sunday, The Dispatch reported that Taylor reimbursed the state $1,039.50 for either being picked up or dropped off at Akron-Canton Airport — about 6?miles from her home — by a Department of Transportation airplane.
Taylor wrote personal checks to the state on Nov.?8 for $269.50 for the June 28 flight, $372 for the July 15 flight and $398 for the Oct. 6 flight. The state spent $2,181 total for her June and July flights.
Taylor’s June 28 trip was for the grand opening of the CSX Intermodal Terminal in North Baltimore, near Findlay, and her Oct. 6 flight was for a speech she gave to multiple chambers of commerce about regulatory reform and her criticisms of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul.
This is just a sample of some pretty damning evidence rolled out by the newspaper over the period of a couple of months. At no point did the Dispatch ever offer a hypothesis that Taylor might not actually be guilty of breaking any laws as the stories continued to imply wrongdoing on the part of the Lt. Governor.
But earlier this month, the Auditor released his findings (sidenote: it was a nine month investigation on a very small issue) and determined that Taylor broke no laws and would not be punished, but not because she didn’t make questionable decisions. Instead the State Auditor’s press release explains it as follows:
There are no findings for recovery issued in the audit report due to the lack of guidelines for the proper use of state aircraft.
“Some other states have clear rules for the use of their state planes, Ohio does not,” Auditor Yost said.
Or as Vardon stated it in the opening sentence of his subsequent story:
The flights weren’t illegal, but they weren’t good ideas, either.
But Yost stopped short of formally accusing either high-ranking GOP official of misusing a state plane, citing a lack of specific guidelines in Ohio of what constitutes proper and improper use.
If you’ve been following our reporting of the state’s attendance investigation should find the similarities between these stories fascinating, especially the projected conclusions that we believe should be drawn by the State Auditor. The Dispatch takes credit for breaking the story (ignoring the fact that the Columbus Schools specifically requested the assistance of the State Auditor) and reports ad nauseam about statistics that they use to imply wrongdoing by public officials, which prompts a wider investigation by the State Auditor.
As we have explained, Ohio’s guidelines, rules, laws, etc., about school attendance reporting are lacking in the same way that the rules surrounding state plane use were found to be by Ohio’s Auditor. As a result, we now have a report that reveals the Auditor’s willingness to consider the fact that actions of public officials despite being repeatedly alleged to be improper by The Dispatch.
The Dispatch missed the story on state plane usage just as they’ve missed the story on state attendance. When (if) the Auditor ever releases a report (first it would to be late summer, then it was definitely before levy elections, now its undetermined) we fully expect it to contain language similar to that contained in this report — a lack of specific guidelines in Ohio about the reporting of student attendance figures will result in no formal findings against any public official and will include recommendations that the legislature make changes in order to clarify expectations.