AfD Challenges Corporate Gifts in Ohio Supreme Court Races

Cautious with words and donors, group aims to elect GOP justices

Friday, October 29, 2004

Ted Wendling

Plain Dealer Bureau

Columbus- The Zurich American Insurance Co. wants you to call Republican Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell and GOP Judge Judith Lanzinger to thank them.

The subsidiary of the Swiss behemoth Zurich Financial Services also wants you to do something else for O'Donnell and Lanzinger. It just can't say explicitly what it is because the company communicates to voters through Citizens for a Strong Ohio, a group prevented by law from advocating the election or defeat of candidates.

So, just in case your grasp of toe-on-the-line politics is as tenuous as a hanging chad, remember that Tuesday (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) is Election Day.

Seeking a "business-friendly" Supreme Court, Zurich American this fall did what other corporate "citizens" have been doing in Ohio for years. It gave $50,000 to Citizens for a Strong Ohio to help the Ohio Chamber of Commerce-sponsored "issue advocacy" group wage a multimillion-dollar campaign on behalf of O'Donnell and Lanzinger.

In doing so, the campaign has scrupulously avoided using the two "magic words" that would rouse elections regulators - "elect" and "defeat." Instead, its TV and radio ads urge voters to call and thank the two conservative judges for their service.

Information released by the chamber and Citizens for a Strong Ohio, or CSO, shows that Zurich American and other corporations gave more than $1.2 million to CSO between Sept. 10 and Oct. 21. That's $300,000 more than O'Donnell's and Lanzinger's opponents, judges William O'Neill and Nancy Fuerst, raised combined in the last year from all donors.

What CSO hasn't revealed are the sources of $605,000 given by the Ohio and U.S. chambers of commerce.

CSO's lawyer, Bill Todd, says the hunt for the original sources of corporate donations violates contributors' First Amendment right to remain anonymous and is "an unending game of 'Gotcha.' "

Cliff Arnebeck, a lawyer who represents a coalition of advocacy groups known as the Alliance for Democracy, counters that the refusal to fully disclose is "a political fix" by the Ohio Republican Party.

For the last four years, Arnebeck has been trying to identify the sources of millions of dollars he says corporations have "laundered" through CSO in an effort to elect Republican judges to the Supreme Court.

Arnebeck tried again Thurs day and won half a loaf. Sort of.

The Ohio Elections Commission dismissed a charge that CSO made false statements by implying that its TV and radio ads are being paid for by citizens instead of corporations. But it agreed to combine the rest of Arnebeck's charges with a case before the very court that CSO is trying to get pro-business judges elected to.

That Ohio Supreme Court case is under appeal after Arnebeck won decisions in two lower courts that ordered CSO to disclose the donors who bankrolled a $4 million campaign in 2000 that accused Justice Alice Robie Resnick, a Democrat, of selling her votes.

Arnebeck told commissioners that CSO has been fighting disclosure to hide large donations that Enron Corp. made before the energy-trading giant became mired in bankruptcy and scandal.

This month, Arnebeck subpoenaed Ohio Consumers' Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander, Enron's former senior director of government affairs, but she has filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

Reached at her office, Migden-Ostrander said she would not discuss Enron outside of the legal proceeding.

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