WHOSE CHOICE? / Second in a four-part series



Published Monday, December 13, 1999



 



Did former aide’s role cross lines?



Tom Needles’ ties with David Brennan while working for governor’s office raise some eyebrows



 



By Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard



Beacon Journal staff writers



 



   Former governor's aide Tom Needles' relationship with David Brennan raises a simple question: Was he more of an advocate for Brennan than he was for public schools?

    Brennan corresponded and met on many occasions with Needles and entertained him at his condominium in Naples, Fla., at the time Needles was the governor's top adviser on education.

    Brennan also used Needles as an intermediary with the Department of Education, and then hired the governor's aide as a lobbyist within days of leaving Voinovich's office, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Akron Beacon Journal.

    Telephone records for late 1996 through 1998 show that as former Gov. George Voinovich's special assistant for education, Needles made more than 250 calls from his office to Brennan's home and business and the voucher office in Cleveland.

    Needles and his wife also spent a weekend at Brennan's Naples condominium in the spring of 1997 or 1998, Needles recalled in an interview last week.

    Ohio Ethics Commission Executive Director David Freel said state employees "can't receive travel from someone who is doing business with or is regulated by the government."

    Needles said he consulted with the governor's legal counsel before making the trip. He said he was told to reimburse Brennan for his lodging at the going rate for an area hotel, and he did so.

    Memos from the Ohio Department of Education show Needles at least twice intervened on Brennan's behalf in the evaluation of how well children in the program were doing. And then, after Needles made a deal, he had to go back to Brennan for approval.

    Needles also made a quick move from the governor's office into lobbying for Brennan's White Hat Management.

    State law prohibits a state employee from negotiating for a job with someone doing business with the state if that job is related to the business the potential employer is doing with the state. But Needles said he and Brennan made their employment deal "after I left government."

    Needles left the governor's office about Dec. 28, 1998, he said. Records show that on Jan. 1 -- four days later -- he was a lobbyist for White Hat Management. White Hat this year will be paid to manage more than $16 million in state and local tax money going to charter schools established by the company.

    Ohio law also prohibits a person from lobbying for at least a year on issues in which he or she had some role as a state employee.

    Needles said he is not lobbying in the sense that he is attempting to sway the legislature or the executive branches. Instead, he said, "I do help Dave on a consulting basis, I do help White Hat on a consulting basis" gathering information on education issues.

    He said that when a Beacon Journal reporter observed him talking to a state school board member following a vote on Brennan's new charter schools, and when he was observed talking to the aide of a lawmaker who had just proposed allowing charter schools in 13 more cities, he was gathering information, not lobbying.

    Asked why, then, he would register as a lobbyist, he said he wanted to "ensure that if there were other issues I was going to advocate on behalf of -- that were new issues for me --that I could do that; I would be registered."

    Ethics Commission Director Freel said unless Needles intercedes specifically in anything he handled as a governor's aide, there is no problem.