By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer
State school board member Bryan Williams of Fairlawn resigned Monday, telling colleagues that recent media reports have made him aware that as a publicly elected official, he may have violated Ohio ethics law by lobbying the government for private interests.
“Adherence to Ohio ethics laws and advisory opinions of the commission charged with interpreting state ethics laws is of the utmost importance to me,” Williams wrote in an email to board president Debe Terhar, who forwarded the email to other members. “Therefore, I conclude it my duty to resign from the State of Ohio Board of Education, district 5 effective immediately so that a new board member may be appointed and serve unencumbered by other simultaneous vocations.”
The Beacon Journal and the NewsOutlet, a student journalism initiative based at Youngstown State University, produced a series of stories published the weekend of Nov. 17 outlining the state board of education’s political views, demographics and profiling of each of the 17 members.
Williams was appointed to a vacant elected seat on the state school board in 2011 by Gov. John Kasich. As an appointed official, state law allowed him to file exemptions that permitted him to simultaneously serve in a public position while still advocating for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio, a consortium of private construction companies. He was a registered lobbyist for the group as early as 2010.
When Williams won election in 2012, the exemption no longer applied as he assumed the position of an elected member.
Williams did not return phone calls on Friday or Monday.
While sitting on the school board in a position to influence discussion and votes, Williams lobbied the legislature, numerous state agencies and the governor’s office on issues that affect school funding and school regulation to the benefit of his non-union contractors group, including a program that would have allowed companies to use high school students for privately run apprenticeship programs, with the public schools paying a portion of the wages.
Meanwhile, one of the affiliates for which he lobbies, the ABC of Central Ohio, opened a publicly funded vocational charter school in Columbus. School officials say the program helps students work toward apprenticeships in skilled trades.
Ethics rules apply
Paul M. Nick, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, said that he is not at liberty to discuss if there is an ongoing investigation, or whether criminal charges would follow.
He did address the conflict of lobbying the government while serving as an elected official.
“Basically, once you become an elected state board member, you cannot represent other parties before other state boards and commissions,” Nick said. “... If there is evidence that there is somebody who is representing parties before other state agencies, then that’s a potential violation of the ethics law. It’s a first-degree misdemeanor, if proven.”
A financial disclosure form filed by Williams in May indicates that he received compensation from two entities, the state school board on which he serves, and Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio, which he has described as an umbrella organization for the several regional ABC groups.
Nick said the mission of the Ethics Commission is to investigate and root out unethical practices among public officials, but the staff is limited in what it can do.
With only 19 employees, the commission investigates what it can. The agency sifts through 11,000 financial disclosures filed voluntarily each year by elected and appointed members of public boards and commissions.
The documents may not list some compensation, the very information they need to determine behavior that could cross the line.
“If you are an elected board member and if you are paid to represent other people before other entities, then that would be in and of itself the question marking a potential issue. The problem we run into is that the disclosure law does not require you to disclose the identity of all your business clients individually, unless they’re doing business with your own board,” Nick said of limitations in the state law.
For that reason, the commission is not always given the necessary information to determine an ethics violation.
“We wouldn’t know [of potential conflicts] short of an investigation — short of an allegation. If somebody does that, then we would definitely look into it, issue subpoenas,” Nick said.
Nick said it was Dispatch editorials based on a Beacon Journal/NewsOutlet investigation of the state school board that prompted him to inform media that elected officials are, in fact, prohibited from lobbying.
Exemption for appointees
Though appointed members carry the same voting power as elected members of the state school board, they can file paperwork to the Ethics Commission that effectively absolves them of any conflict. In that statement, appointed members indicate that they would refrain from voting or discussing matters that come before the board and they also lobby other agencies on.
In the case of C. Todd Jones, a lobbyist for private colleges who was appointed to the state school board by Gov. John Kasich, some statements were filed indicating that he has some potential conflicts.
However, a Beacon Journal review of his disclosure statements with the commission showed that he may not have filed statements on all education matters that he lobbied. The Columbus Dispatch reported Sunday that Jones has filed additional documents since the original Beacon Journal/NewsOutlet series published in November.
This is Williams’ complete, emailed resignation letter to school board president Debe Terhar, time-stamped at 1:09 p.m. Monday:
Recent media reports made me aware of the Ohio Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion 2007-03 which advises that elected members of a state board should not be registered lobbyists.
Adherence to Ohio ethics laws and advisory opinions of the commission charged with interpreting state ethics laws is of the utmost importance to me. Therefore, I conclude it my duty to resign from the State of Ohio Board of Education, district 5 effective immediately so that a new board member may be appointed and serve unencumbered by other simultaneous vocations.
Please know that as a private citizen I will continue to support the educational needs and opportunities, not only of my own three school-aged children, but all Ohio children. Their educational success will define our future. I’m confident it is a bright future.
Bryan C. Williams
This is Terhar’s response to Williams:
I cannot begin to thank you enough for your service to the State of Ohio and all of the students in this state as a member of The State Board of Education. You have been a true asset to the Board. I am deeply saddened by your resignation but understand fully the facts of law before us regarding your status on the Board.
I wish you the very best in your future endeavors and I look forward to staying in touch.
All the best,
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.