By Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: Republican Josh Mandel has kept two traffic accidents quiet since becoming Ohio treasurer in 2011 — including one that raises a potential violation of federal campaign finance law.
Law enforcement reports obtained by the Associated Press show one crash in March near Toledo and one in April 2011 in downtown Columbus.
During the late-night March accident, Mandel was riding in a vehicle owned by his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, months after he’d lost his high-profile bid against Democrat Sherrod Brown.
Under federal campaign finance law, Senate campaign property can’t be used for personal use or to campaign for a different office, such as treasurer.
Mandel’s state treasurer campaign says it rented the vehicle from the federal campaign. The rental check cleared June 30, more than seven months after Mandel had lost the Senate race and almost four months after the accident, which totaled the vehicle.
Federal campaign rules generally require rental checks for transportation to be paid no more than 60 days after the travel takes place. Mandel’s political team says both state and federal campaign finance lawyers were consulted on the rental arrangement.
As treasurer, Mandel has opted not to use state-owned transportation for official business on the premise that it saves taxpayers money. The practice, while legal, allows him to leave virtually no paper trail at his state office of his travel activity.
Campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Wasserstein said the practice is fiscally responsible.
“While many public officials use tax dollars to travel around the state, Treasurer Mandel is saving Ohioans thousands of dollars by not using a penny of taxpayer money,” she said. “This is yet another example of Josh Mandel walking the walk as a fiscal conservative and leader with integrity.”
The practice meant Mandel would have had to take extra steps to inform his state office that he was involved in the two wrecks, and in one case sustained minor injuries. An AP public records request for associated documents turned up no existing records.
Wasserstein said Mandel informed his chief of staff of both crashes but did not make a formal report because neither accident involved official business.
The 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee owned by Mandel’s Senate campaign was totaled on March 5 after his driver, 29-year-old Brian Pochitila, spun out, lost control and struck a concrete wall after hitting a patch of ice at about 11 p.m., according to the State Highway Patrol accident report.
In the earlier accident, Mandel was being driven by Jacob Dummermuth, then a 21-year-old Senate campaign intern, when their vehicle collided with another in a downtown Columbus intersection near Mandel’s state offices at about 3 p.m. on April 26, 2011. Dummermuth was driving a Ford Explorer owned by his father, according to the Columbus police report.
At the time, Mandel had been Ohio’s state treasurer for a little more than three months. He had not yet announced his plan to run for the Senate.
Using campaign accounts to pay for official state trips is legally allowed, but it can raise transparency issues for public officials. Most make known any traffic accidents they’re involved in — such as a four-vehicle accident in April involving Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Those driving state vehicles are required to report accidents immediately.
Wasserstein said Mandel had a political event in Toledo on March 6 and traveled up the night before in hopes of beating a snowstorm. His official calendar for April 26, 2011, shows Mandel was due at a videotaping at the Statehouse to promote his Center for Public Investment Management on the afternoon of the crash.
Ohio Secretary of State filings show Pochitila, his driver in March, is paid by Mandel’s state treasurer campaign. The federal campaign, Citizens for Josh Mandel Inc., reported to the FEC that it purchased the vehicle it was driving for $13,800 on March 8, 2012, ahead of the November Senate election.
The March accident report lists Citizens for Josh Mandel as the vehicle’s owner.
Ohio campaign finance law would have prohibited transferring the vehicle from the federal to the state campaign, though the state campaign could legally have purchased the vehicle. The state campaign chose to pay $1,000 to rent it for two months from the federal campaign.
Wasserstein said the rental fee covered January and February. After questioning by the AP, the campaign wrote an additional check for about $80 to cover the days in March before the vehicle was wrecked. The campaign provided listings showing several area Jeep rentals for less than $500 a month.
Mandel’s state treasurer campaign reported in Ohio filings that it bought a new vehicle for $15,000 on April 9, the month after the March crash.