From The Toledo Blade:
More than two years after investigators began probing Tom Noe’s vaunted political fund-raising ability, he admitted yesterday that he used friends and colleagues to illegally pour thousands of dollars into the effort to re-elect President Bush.
Noe, whose fund-raising acumen earned him star status as a Bush “Pioneer” and helped him secure coveted federal and state political appointments, pleaded guilty to all three felony counts he faced.
Noe said he wanted to “spare my dear family and friends … further embarrassment.”
The 51-year-old is facing between 24 and 30 months in prison and a substantial fine according to federal sentencing guidelines, assistant U.S. Attorney John Pearson said. However, he said he would seek an even stiffer penalty because of the “potential loss of public faith” in the presidential election.
For more than a year, Republicans in Ohio and Washington have been subjected to continued revelations about a man who had constant access to Gov. Bob Taft’s office and who was a guest at the White House. The President won a second term on the strength of a narrow victory in Ohio.
With his guilty plea, Noe will go from a well-connected Republican who led the Bush effort in northwest Ohio to a convicted felon, adding a permanent stain to his political career.
His guilty plea also acknowledged implicitly that he illegally obtained the cachet typically bestowed upon the biggest political fund-raisers. Hundreds of the Bush “Pioneers” and “Rangers” — those who raised more than $100,000 and $200,000 respectively — were rewarded with coveted ambassadorships, favorable policy changes, and friendly legislation. Noe himself was appointed to a key committee of the U.S. Mint.
State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said most people are “shocked and angered and disappointed all at once as to the magnitude” of the accusations against Noe.
“It’s beyond anyone’s comprehension,” Mr. Gardner said.
U.S. District Judge David Katz accepted the guilty plea and said a sentencing date would be scheduled after the federal probation office can produce a presentencing report. Noe will begin providing information for that report tomorrow.
By accepting responsibility and avoiding a trial, Noe is eligible for a reduced prison sentence.
Noe still faces more than four dozen other felony counts in Lucas County Common Pleas Court on allegations that he stole millions of dollars from two rare-coin funds totaling $50 million he managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. An August trial has been set in that case.
24 alleged ‘conduits’
During the hearing yesterday, federal prosecutors painted a picture of a man who knew it was wrong to give $45,500 to 24 alleged “conduits” to boost his fund-raising totals at a fund-raiser in October, 2003.
Noe duped them and the presidential campaign he sought to help, assistant U.S. Attorney Seth Uram said.
Noe turned to deceit, Mr. Uram said, after his pledge to raise $50,000 for the Bush campaign foundered when friends claimed they couldn’t attend the $2,000-a-plate event or couldn’t afford it.
“It was then that the defendant [decided] that they could use his own funds to pay for their $2,000 tickets,” Mr. Uram said.
But Noe, who had already given the maximum contribution a few months earlier, should have known it was wrong. Mr. Uram said investigators obtained memos given to Noe about conduits. One memo, which would have been used in a trial, clearly said: “It is illegal to give money in the name of another.”
He was formally charged with conspiracy to violate federal campaign laws and with violating them. He was also charged with causing the Bush-Cheney campaign to file a false campaign finance report.
Donor cards signed
All of the conduits signed donor cards that acknowledged they were the source of their donations when all knew Noe was responsible, prosecutors said.
But for all of the details that were revealed, the hearing left many questions unanswered: Why did Noe agree to raise $50,000 for the Bush campaign? Did anyone pressure him to raise money? Did he hope to curry favor with the Bush White House? His plea leaves those questions open to speculation.
Noe rose to prominence in the Republican Party over the last 15 years as a willing fund-raiser and political confidant and planner.
He secured high-profile gubernatorial appointments to the Bowling Green State University Board of Trustees and the Ohio Board of Regents, and for a time was chairman of the regents — despite being a college dropout. He also was appointed to the Ohio Turnpike Commission, where he also was chairman.
Noe and his wife, Bernadette, both former chairmen of the Lucas County Republican Party, have given more than $200,000 to politicians over the last 16 years. Their giving increased substantially after the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation in 1998 gave him the first of two $25 million payments to invest in his rare-coin funds.
In May, 2003, he secured a federal appointment to an important committee of the U.S. Mint, a panel that advises the U.S. Treasury secretary on themes and designs for coins and congressional gold medals. He was named its chairman.
Before The Blade began reporting in April, 2005, about Noe’s coin deals with the state, he and his wife owned three waterfront homes, including two in Ohio. Since then they’ve sold their condo along the Maumee River in Maumee and their $1 million Catawba Island home on the shore of Lake Erie.
The former GOP power couple retreated to a palatial home in the Florida Keys, which has been used to secure more than $1 million in loans to pay his attorneys.
All of the 24 alleged conduits cooperated with the probe and were willing to testify, Mr. Uram said. Four acknowledged they knew it was illegal at the time. Because the alleged conduits were not charged, Mr. Uram said he was precluded from identifying them.
But court records show that many of them were some of the people closest to Noe: his brother-in-law Joe Restivo; local politicians Maggie Thurber, Betty Shultz, Sally Perz, and Donna Owens; two former aides to Governor Taft; and other political and social friends.
Ms. Thurber, Ms. Shultz, Ms. Perz, and Ms. Owens all face potential state ethics charges for failing to disclose the money from Noe. A special prosecutor appointed by Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates is considering charges.
Ms. Thurber and Ms. Shultz yesterday declined to comment about their roles in Noe’s contributions to President Bush’s campaign. Ms. Perz and Ms. Owens did not return phone calls.
Mr. Uram said prosecutors would have relied on memos, records from the Bush campaign, information gleaned from Noe’s trash, and the testimony of the alleged conduits.
The alleged conduits told investigators that Noe told them to claim the money was a loan if anyone ever asked, and he gave varying amounts to them — only three got the same amount as they would later give the Bush campaign — “so that the payments would look less suspicious,” Mr. Uram said.
Then, in April, 2005, as word of the federal investigation filtered to Noe, he called some of the alleged conduits and asked for payment on the “loans.” Some did send checks and some told investigators the money was a loan. They later changed their stories.
At one point, well after the event, Noe even created a “loan folder” to further disguise his fund-raising, Mr. Uram said.
Throughout the 45-minute hearing, Noe was calm and responsive with Judge Katz, acknowledging questions with “yes, your honor,” and “no, your honor.”
Then, after hearing all of the evidence Mr. Uram outlined, Noe said he voluntarily agreed to change his plea “to accept responsibility to spare my dear family and friends the further embarrassment of any additional court proceeding. Therefore, I plead guilty.”
He was joined in the courtroom by his sister, Beth Noe June of Clark Lake, Mich., and her husband.
Noe remains free on $350,000 bond pending the sentencing hearing. He will undergo drug testing as part of the presentencing report and a complete background check will be done.
Both the federal prosecutors and Noe’s defense attorneys will be able to review and question the report before Judge Katz sentences Noe.
Mr. Pearson said he anticipates Noe’s attorneys will ask that any federal sentence be delayed until the state charges are resolved.
Mr. Pearson asked Judge Katz to treat Noe like any other defendant.
The judge said he would answer those requests later.
No one in state government has been harder hit by the Noe case than Governor Taft, whose administration and legacy have been ravaged by his association with Noe and the scandal that has enveloped Columbus. Yesterday, Mark Rickel, the governor’s press secretary, said “this is a serious offense in the hands of a capable judge and prosecutors.’’
At the time of Noe’s indictment, a senior Justice Department official said the Noe case represented the largest campaign money-laundering scheme prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department since new campaign-finance laws were enacted by Congress in 2002.