Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: An Ohio lawmaker convicted of accepting trips, gifts and campaign cash in exchange for promising to introduce legislation was granted immediate release from prison on Thursday, after telling a judge he’s sorry for his mistakes and wants to turn his future to improving Ohio’s prison system.
Columbus Democrat W. Carlton Weddington’s release came as a fourth lawmaker was charged in the same long-running probe involving payday industry lobbying at the Ohio Statehouse, which uncovered several unrelated legal violations.
Democratic state Rep. Sandra Williams, 46, of Cleveland, faces two misdemeanor charges of converting campaign funds for personal use and attempted election falsification related to the purchase and re-sale of Ohio State football tickets. She’s due in court Friday.
Weddington entered Franklin County Common Pleas court Thursday in handcuffs and prison attire. He had served more than two years of a three-year prison sentence.
The 44-year-old ex-lawmaker apologized to his constituents and his family, telling Judge Mark Serrott he has owned his mistakes and intends to turn them into an opportunity. Weddington said he has gained unique perspective behind bars about the prison system he once helped to oversee as a member of the state Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.
“It is my intent now, your honor, to actively pursue change through meaningful discussion of (prison department) policies,” the former lawmaker said. “This is where I would like to continue my purpose, my means of not only helping myself but others who have been in my position.”
Weddington pleaded guilty in 2012 to bribery, election falsification and filing a false financial disclosure statement. Authorities said he accepted all-expenses-paid trips to Miami’s South Beach and California’s Napa Valley and other items of value from a fake business entity set up by the FBI in exchange for legislation he would introduce.
In releasing Weddington, Serrott said he believes Weddington knows what he did was wrong.
“The public already had a poor view of public officials, but what happened only continued to hurt people’s trust in government,” the judge said. “But I do know you are an individual who is resilient, who has talent and passion. I’ve always been impressed with you, and I do believe in redemption.”
Serrott’s releases came with conditions. Weddington must remain on intense supervision for up to five years, undergo regular alcohol and substance abuse evaluations, and stay out of bars that serve only alcohol.
He also must complete 40 hours of community service, specifically speaking to business, political and legal groups about the influences of lobbyists on the law-making process and the “pitfalls that are out there.” Serrott also assigned Weddington another 20 hours of community service to work on prison reforms.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien told Serrott that, while he did not support early release, Weddington had generally cooperated with investigators in an ongoing investigation into payday industry lobbying and so he would defer to the court’s judgment on the matter.
“I think the potential’s there,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know that I’m necessarily as confident as the judge.”
He said Williams’ alleged wrongdoing was discovered during the same investigation, and that authorities wanted the allegations made public before Tuesday’s election, in which Williams is a state Senate candidate.
Thursday court filings indicate her campaign committee bought a $2,255 pair of season tickets in 2010, reporting they were “for campaign volunteers.” Williams then sold the tickets and deposited the proceeds in her personal bank account.
Williams is a former president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, which has seen three other members face charges in the payday probe. Two, including Weddington, went to prison. The other, term-limited Cincinnati Democrat Dale Mallory, was charged Wednesday.
Williams admits wrongdoing, and has apologized and pledged not to repeat the mistake.