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Ohio Sec. of State LaRose’s office move amid U.S. Senate candidacy raises ethical questions


Ohio Sec. of State LaRose’s office move amid U.S. Senate candidacy raises ethical questions

Sep 15, 2023 | 5:00 am ET
By Marty Schladen
Ohio Sec. of State LaRose’s office move amid U.S. Senate candidacy raises ethical questions
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Ohio Sec. of State LaRose’s office move amid U.S. Senate candidacy raises ethical questions
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has decided it’s a good idea to both oversee Ohio’s U.S. Senate election as the state’s chief elections officer and house part of his campaign for the seat in the same building. But the arrangement, which LaRose has done little to explain, raises serious questions about potential conflicts of interest and other ethical problems, an expert said last week.

As secretary of state, LaRose is Ohio’s top elections administrator. His ability to do that job impartially has been called into question for several reasons. 

  • He was a member of a Republican-dominated redistricting commission that ignored seven orders from the Ohio Supreme Court to draw legislative and congressional districts in compliance with anti-gerrymandering amendments to the state Constitution.
  • This year, he led a misleading campaign to make it much harder for voters to initiate and pass amendments to the state Constitution. 
  • The campaign was unsuccessful, but shortly after that effort failed, LaRose led the Ohio Ballot Board in writing language describing a proposed abortion-rights amendment in loaded ways such as changing the word “fetus” to “unborn child.”
  • And as he seeks the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate next year, LaRose fulsomely endorsed former President Donald Trump, who faces felony indictment in two jurisdictions on accusations that he tried to steal the 2020 presidential election.

And there’s the fact that LaRose is seeking the U.S. Senate seat at the same time that he’s administering the election. 

Last week, Channel 4 WCMH broke the news that LaRose is looking to move the secretary of state’s office from a building at 180 E. Broad Street where it had been located for nearly 20 years. The office was moving, the station reported, to a building at 200 Civic Center Drive.

That’s the same address LaRose gave as his campaign address when he filed his candidacy for Senate with the Federal Election Commission.

LaRose’s office didn’t respond to questions from the Capital Journal.

As WCMH reported, LaRose told the Ohio Controlling Board the move necessary “due to ongoing infrastructure and personnel security concerns, as well as the need to improve operational efficiency.” The article pointed out, however, that the building at 200 Civic Center Drive is farther from the city center, the Statehouse, and the two major state office buildings than three other locations that were also considered.

And this week, LaRose made another justification that strains credulity. He claimed the move would save taxpayer dollars, WCMH reported. 

The new lease is reportedly $11,000 a year less than the existing one, but the move is expected to cost $600,000. Given those numbers, the move won’t pay for itself until 2077.

Meanwhile, housing the office that runs Ohio elections in the same building where part of LaRose’s campaign operation is located raises some serious questions about whether state election administrators will appear impartial in the heat of a contested primary — or in a General Election against incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown.

LaRose’s campaign website lists 145 E. Rich St., Suite 100A as its address, while the law firm Baker Hostetler is housed at the same address listed on the LaRose campaign’s FEC filing — 200 Civic Center Drive, Suite 1200. However, LaRose’s office didn’t respond to questions from WCMH or the Capital Journal about whether LaRose had engaged or would engage in interviews, fundraising, or other campaign activities in the building that would also house the secretary of state’s office.

Delaney Marsco is senior legal counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center. She said LaRose should already be watching his step as he simultaneously serves as the state’s top elections officer and runs for Senate.

“The idea of him running for Senate at the same time he is secretary of state should make him a little bit cautious about how he uses his time, how he uses his staff time,” she said, adding that the situation becomes more delicate because LaRose is moving his state office to a building that houses aspects of his campaign. “That’s where my ethics red flags would go up… There’s a real concern about co-mingling the official business that he’s supposed to be doing on behalf of all people of Ohio and then the work that he’s doing as a candidate for Senate.”

Last month, after the failure of LaRose’s attempt to make voter-initiated constitutional amendments almost impossible, the Libertarian Party of Ohio filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. It accused him of violating the Hatch Act, the law prohibiting the use of federal resources for political activities. For example, it prohibits members of Congress from fundraising in their congressional offices.

A statement announcing the Libertarian complaint said LaRose violated the Hatch Act by “receiving federal funds for elections, while also using his office to affect an election.” 

How much potential there is for Hatch Act violations by locating the Secretary of State’s Office in the same building as a part of the LaRose Senate campaign isn’t clear-cut, Marsco said. A violation would require secretary-of-state employees whose functions are at least partly supported by federal funds to help the LaRose campaign while they’re on the clock, she said.

Even so, Ohio law forbids government workers from raising political money while on the clock, and there are other restrictions relating to the use of official resources for political purposes. The reasons for such rules are clear, Marsco said.

“Any elected or appointed position where you’re required to serve the public’s interest, we need to be sure that you are actually serving the public’s interest,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon the public servant to make those decisions and act ethically and even avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Meanwhile, answers about the the validity of the reasons LaRose gave for the move are hard to come by. LaRose’s request to the Controlling Board’s said the move was warranted because “The proposed facility offers numerous improvements over the Office’s current location, including secure parking for full-time employees, a more functional layout of workspace and personnel resources, and semi-furnished offices with furnishings valued at approximately $1.5 million that will become the property of the Office of the Secretary of State, significantly reducing the need to move or acquire furniture in the relocation. These improvements will enhance the Office’s ability to recruit and retain the high-quality workforce Ohioans expect from their state government services.”

It’s unclear how that compares to the building the secretary of state is leaving.

The owner is Terra Funding — Continental Plaza LLC, according to records on file with the Secretary of State’s office. Its registered agent, Corporation Service Company, didn’t respond to questions.

Nor did Stephen M. Griffith Jr. respond to a request for comment. He’s the Cincinnati-based lawyer listed as registered agent for the owner of the building at 200 Civic Center Drive — CC 13 LLC. One question put to him was about lease rates the public will pay for secretary-of-state functions in the building, as compared to rates paid for Suite 1200, the address the LaRose campaign registered with the FEC.

Such questions could have been avoided if LaRose had chosen to locate elsewhere, said Marsco, the ethics counsel with the Campaign Legal Center.

“Listen, I went to law school in Columbus, I’m from Northern Ohio,” she said. “There’s really no shortage of office space in the city.”