Julie Carr Smyth

COLUMBUS: A Democratic lawyer running for lieutenant governor owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state tax liens, debts that have immediately complicated his party’s hopes of unseating Republican Gov. John Kasich in 2014.

News of the liens, joined by foreclosure and credit-card troubles, began to emerge just days after state Sen. Eric Kearney’s candidacy was announced last week in what was intended as an energy-boosting event for the gubernatorial campaign of Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.

FitzGerald’s performance at the top of the Democratic ticket next year is likely to affect other candidates for statewide office.

FitzGerald, a former FBI agent, is little known outside Cleveland and it’s not a first impression that’s likely to help him with voters, said John Green, who heads the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

“One of the challenges facing Ed FitzGerald and Senator Kearney is to get their names known, not just in the areas where they’ve been prominent,” Green said. “With these kinds of allegations, the first thing people learn about the candidate is not necessarily favorable.”

Exacerbating the problem is the fact Democrats have hammered the Ohio Republican Party’s chairman for unpaid tax liens.

Kasich stood by Matthew Borges, his favored nominee to run the party, and Borges eventually was elected party chair this spring.

Now Democrats are standing by Kearney, arguing his liens were related to his struggling small business, a publisher of the Cincinnati Herald, aimed at black readers, and that he and his wife are steadily paying down the debt.

The revelations have mounted over a series of bruising days:

• Kearney and his wife, Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, have had federal tax liens of $218,000 associated with their business, Sesh Communications, also known as KGL Media Group, which they’ve paid down to about $83,000.

• Federal tax liens assessed against Sesh Communications itself since 1996 total $683,000, a portion of which is addressed by the Kearneys’ payment plan.

• Sesh also faces $105,000 in state tax liens, which the campaign says are being disputed.

• Kearney settled a credit-card case last year with a promise to pay $13,000 in debt.

• Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney was the subject of a brief foreclosure action that was dropped.

Campaign spokesman Matthew McGrath said the campaign is comfortable that Kearney, the Ohio Senate minority leader since January 2012, is handling the debts.

“Senator Kearney has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most effective people in Columbus. He’s incredibly well respected by his colleagues and his constituents,” McGrath said. “He has disclosed these issues and they’ve been known and reported on; we think they’re old news. He and his wife have taken responsibility and are addressing these issues and keeping the business running.”

Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf said Kearney’s troubles call the competence of FitzGerald — who’s yet to speak on the issue — into question.

“Picking a running mate is one of the few and most important decisions someone running for governor makes,” he said. “It reveals their decision-making process and their priorities and sends a signal about their basic competence. It is clear that FitzGerald failed to fully think through his decision or fully vet his running mate.”

Green said FitzGerald chose a running mate nearly a year before the November 2014 election, and that may turn out to be ill-advised.

“There can be some benefits to that, but what we’re seeing here is perhaps some of the cost,” he said. “This will subject the ticket to ridicule long before the campaign begins.”