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Government/Politics

Ohio Ethics Commission seeks harsher penalties for giving unlawful gifts to lawmakers

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The Ohio General Assembly would need to approve the change.

The Ohio Ethics Commission is asking state lawmakers to beef up penalties for people convicted of illegally giving money or gifts to legislators or public agency leaders.

The allowable amount a donor can give a lawmaker or other leader is between $75 to $500 per year depending on who is getting the gift and how it is given. Exceeding that amount is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $1000 fine. But Ohio Ethics Commission Executive Director Paul Nick says he’s asking lawmakers to increase that penalty.

“We are asking the General Assembly to enhance that to include barring folks, prohibiting them from having public contracts for five years and also giving the courts the authority to order fines that would be equal to the amount of any unlawful payments that were made,” Nick says.

To be clear, this doesn’t increase penalties for lawmakers who accept unlawful gifts – only donors who give them.

So, why does the commission want lawmakers to make this change?

The commission's request comes in the wake of the scandal involving First Energy and lawmakers who allegedly accepted gifts from the utility in exchange for passing legislation that benefitted the company with millions of dollars. Under a recent deal with federal authorities, First Energy agreed to pay $230 million in penalties in connection with the case. The federal government is continuing to prosecute former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and the former leader of the Ohio Republican Party, Matt Borges, for their alleged wrongdoing in the scheme.

Nick said the HB6 fallout underscored the weakness of Ohio's penalties for violating ethics laws. He says “Passage of this amendment will enable the Commission and other sectors of law enforcement to deal more fully with misconduct that may be related to bribery, such as in federal cases pending in Ohio.” He says adoption of the harsher penalties will serve as an additional deterrent to companies or vendors who might try to wrongfully influence the use and expenditure of public funds.

“The Commission’s bipartisan membership aims to ensure that the Law will clearly serve to uphold public confidence by stiffening penalties available for such misconduct in Ohio,” says Commission Chairman Merom Brachman.

For more information on Ohio's current laws for gifts, click here

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