The continuing questions surrounding transparency at Governor John Kasich's job-creating entity JobsOhio came up again in a routine meeting Monday that ended with a statement that shocked many observers.
Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler explains.
It was an almost irresistible opportunity for Rep. Chris Redfern of Catawba Island. The agency which used to be called the Department of Development before its job-creating duties were split off into the public private entity JobsOhio asked the state Controlling Board to release nearly 18 million dollars for grants, loans and other uses. Redfern is a member of the Controlling Board, but he’s also the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, and a fierce critic of JobsOhio, which is now being blasted from the left and the right because of questions about transparency. Redfern grilled John Mahaney from the Development Services Agency about whether DSA’s funds could be audited by the state auditor – who wants to audit JobsOhio but Gov. John Kasich has said he can’t audit the entity’s private money.
“We act as agents of the public when we are disbursing these dollars. There are questions as it relates to JobsOhio whether or not previously disbursed dollars – whether by the Controlling Board or from the director to another director – whether or not that was legal and whether or not those dollars can be audited.”
Republicans on the panel steered the questions back to the money and away from how it’s audited – including Rep. Ron Amstutz.
“I do have questions associated with some of these items – should I ask them now, or are you going to come back to 13 and 16? I’m trying to focus on the agenda rather than the political opportunities that are going on here.”
After a few more questions, the Controlling Board did grant the money requests for DSA. Afterward, reporters asked Mahaney about the contract that DSA has with JobsOhio to service loans.
“What JobsOhio does is, they go out and they find the businesses that need the assistance to route the deal back through us, we approve it and then we service the, uh, the loan servicing.”
But the questioning of Mahaney quickly came to an end as DSA communications director Todd Walker stepped in.
“You know what? Any other questions that you have, I’d be happy to answer them. Submit those to me, I would be happy to answer of your questions.”
“So we have to put our questions to you in writing?”
“Submit your questions to me, and I’d be happy to answer any of those, because I need to be able to have all the details to answer your questions.”
As Statehouse reporters questioned Walker about the unusual move to ask for questions in writing, Mahaney slipped out the door. Reporters continued to ask Walker questions, and he continued to suggest that the questions be put in writing. A few hours later, Walker called to clarify his position.
“A person can ask us questions, whether it’s verbally or in writing or any way that’s best for them and we’re going to respond with answers to those questions. So it’s inaccurate to say that you can only submit questions related to JobsOhio in writing. We’re able to respond to questions of any person asking those directly to us.”
And Walker also says DSA director Christine Schmenk has asked the state auditor to audit DSA grant support to JobsOhio. But questions continue to pile up about JobsOhio’s annual report and how much money it took in and where it went. Rob Walgate is with the Ohio Roundtable, a conservative organization that has raised questions about the public money in the Third Frontier, the high-tech development program that’s been embraced by Republicans and Democrats.
“If people with Ds next to their name were doing this, the Republicans would be screaming for transparency. It almost feels like the people who are in charge are saying, ‘Hey, sit back, relax. We’re smarter than the rest of you. We know how to do this. Don’t worry about the money. Trust us.’ Well, this country’s gotten to a big mess by trusting the wrong people too many times.”
Auditor David Yost, who’s a Republican, issued a subpoena for JobsOhio’s records – JobsOhio has until March 19 to comply. But Gov. Kasich and Republican House Speaker Bill Batchelder have said that Yost does not have the authority to audit JobsOhio’s private dollars.