Joe Guillen
Plain Dealer reporter

A state elections commission three months ago approved a controversial campaign finance expenditure by former Cuyahoga County Sheriff Gerald McFaul — but did so without first seeing a prosecutor’s legal opinion that suggests the spending was illegal.

The year-old opinion from Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason’s office was finally distributed to members of the Ohio Elections Commission on Friday, after the Plain Dealer raised questions about it.

Mason’s office had provided the legal opinion to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections when it began investigating McFaul’s questionable campaign spending early last year.

But the county board of elections failed to forward the opinion to the state elections panel when it referred the matter for further investigation in February 2011. The elections board decided to publicly release the opinion shortly after referring the matter to the state agency. A copy was then published by the Plain Dealer.

Kimberly Allison, a member of the Ohio Elections Commission, discovered Mason’s legal opinion while conducting her own online research.

“I just did a Google search,” she said.

Ohio Elections Commission Executive Director Philip Richter, who recommended the board approve McFaul’s use of campaign funds based on his own legal research, was not familiar with the legal opinion from Mason’s office until this week.

“It may have been nice to have it, but I didn’t have it,” Richter said.

The commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, already has ruled McFaul acted within the law when he emptied his campaign finance account in 2010 to pay $130,000 in restitution.

McFaul’s restitution was part of his sentence after pleading guilty to stealing cash from his campaign fund.

Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, has urged the commission to reconsider the case. Rather than reconsider their decision, the commission in March directed Richter to write an advisory opinion on the matter.