Growing chorus laments lack of JobsOhio oversight

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- When Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer lamented the courts' seeming lack of jurisdiction over Gov. John Kasich's privatized job-creation board last week, he joined a growing chorus of the frustrated.

State lawmakers created JobsOhio in 2011 in a bill containing sweeping exemptions from public records and ethics laws.

Defenders of the corporate-style setup point to a laundry list of reports, disclosures and business filings still required of the entity, but it is not only Kasich's political opponents who have raised concern.

Pfeifer, like Kasich a Republican, wondered aloud during Wednesday's oral arguments in a JobsOhio legal standing case whether Ohio's judicial branch of government will ever get to weigh in on its legality.

"I sort of see a big wall," he told the state's attorney, Stephen Carney. "It all looks alike, it's all painted the same color, and somehow the Supreme Court or the courthouse is behind the wall. But finding the door, where is it? I mean you say it's there, but I'm not understanding where the door is."

Carney replied that there are plenty of doors to the courthouse, just not for plaintiffs led by liberal think tank ProgressOhio who he argues can't demonstrate any real harm.

Among areas at issue in the case before justices is a 90-day window that the JobsOhio law allowed for suing that opponents say closed before the office could have had any impact on a potential plaintiff.

Another fellow Republican, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, resorted to subpoenaing JobsOhio's private books in March for a performance review his office was attempting to conduct of JobsOhio. Yost decried JobsOhio's lack of cooperation in turning over financial records he said he needed to do a thorough job.

JobsOhio ultimately complied with the subpoena under protest, but that door will be closed to Yost in the future. Lawmakers in the Republican-led Legislature passed a bill making sure that JobsOhio's private books remain just that: private.

Members of the Ohio Ethics Commission watch out for potential pay-to-play schemes and financial conflicts of interest, but their role is also limited when it comes to JobsOhio.

In September, the commission warned six of nine members of JobsOhio's board of directors that their business interests raise potential conflicts of interest. The issue ended there, as JobsOhio was crafted to be self-policing when it comes to such conflicts.

Executive director Paul Nick briefed the board on the matter during an August flap over potential investment conflicts brought to the panel's attention by Kasich's gubernatorial rival in 2014, Democrat Ed FitzGerald.

He read from an Ohio law that says JobsOhio "shall not be considered a state or public department, agency, office, body, institution, or instrumentality for purposes of (the ethics law)."

Chairman Merom Brachman suggested it was pointless "political theater" for Democrats to raise such issues, because the commission had no power in the matter.