Lawmaker's influence over tobacco settlement legislation questioned
Senate Democrats, accusing House Finance Chairman E.J. Thomas of an ethical lapse, will offer amendments tightening conflict of interest provisions in legislation dividing up Ohio's share of the national tobacco settlement.
Democrats said they're reacting to word of a job offer Thomas is weighing with a company tied to a firm that may one day compete for money from that settlement.
"Billions of taxpayer dollars are being placed in the hands of organizations with little public checks and balances," state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland, said Thursday. "The sheer, staggering amount of money can lead to abuses which must be prevented."
Thomas, R-Columbus, said no such conflict exists. He said he was disappointed that misunderstandings led some to question his reputation and principles.
A board yet to be created, not Thomas, will make decisions on spending the money, he said.
"It is entirely up to the board to decide who is awarded a contract, and whether or not any of the money in question will be used for advertising," he said.
As chairman of the House Finance Committee, Thomas will oversee legislation aimed at dividing Ohio's $10.1 billion share of the national tobacco settlement into various funds.
One of those funds, a proposed $1.5 billion Tobacco Use Prevention and Cessation Trust Fund, could include a statewide anti-tobacco advertising contract.
Thomas, who must leave the Legislature next year because of term limits, is considering a job offer from Neil Clark and Paul Tipps, two of Ohio's most powerful lobbyists.
The two, along with Cincinnati advertising firm Northlich Stolley LaWare, are forming a new joint venture company, Groundswell LLC, that will work on corporate public affairs and lobbying issues.
Northlich Stolley LaWare is one of several firms that might pursue the advertising contract.
That pursuit won't involve Groundswell, Clark said Thursday.
"In no shape or form will we be involved in tobacco monies," Clark said. "We're not going to compete with it or be involved in it. What Northlich does, that's their business."
Senate Democrats "need to identify what the conflict is," Clark said.
Rick Miller, managing director of Northlich Stolley LaWare, said any advertising contract that would arise from the settlement is months, if not years away.
"One, there is no advertising contract. Two, nothing has been funded, no foundation exists, no people sit on the committee," Miller said.
If a request went out for firms that could effectively communicate the dangers of tobacco use, Northlich Stolley LaWare "certainly would look at something like that," Miller said. "But I have no idea what such a contract would call for."
Senate Democrats, angered by reports of Thomas' job offer, promised to offer amendments to the tobacco settlement bill.
These would mandate state oversight of programs aimed at helping people stop smoking, and for southern Ohio counties where tobacco is grown.
The amendments would also tighten conflict of interest provisions in the tobacco legislation.