- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - As a sweeping Ohio Statehouse probe into lobbying by the payday lending industry culminates this week, it showcases some of the early work of Columbus’ first FBI public corruption squad.

The five-agent team that came to Ohio’s capital city in October 2012 had a big role in unearthing a pattern of wrongdoing arguably not witnessed at the Statehouse since top state legislators were caught in the mid-1990s side-stepping speaking-fee restrictions through a process called “pancaking.”

Term-limited state Rep. Dale Mallory, progeny of a storied Cincinnati political family, is scheduled to be sentenced in the payday case on Thursday on two misdemeanor ethics charges.

State Rep. Sandra Williams, of Cleveland, a senator-elect and former president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, was fined and sentenced to a suspended six-month jail term last week for selling Ohio State tickets her campaign purchased to a lobbyist and pocketing the proceeds.

Two more state lawmakers - then-state Reps. W. Carlton Weddington of Columbus and Clayton Luckie of Dayton - received prison time in the long-running investigation. Two lobbyists also were convicted.

Columbus’ growing population and increasing sophistication as a metropolis helped drive the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s decision to dedicate a public corruption unit to the city. Many other major state capitals have one, and Cleveland and Cincinnati have had FBI presences since the earliest days of the organization.

“As the state capitol, it is important for the FBI to have a strong investigative presence with a public corruption squad located in Columbus,” said John A. Barrios, the acting Special Agent in Charge. “Public corruption is not necessarily better or worse in Columbus, but it is certainly a center of activity for government and policymakers.”

Besides the Statehouse, the Columbus public corruption also investigates other government agencies, local police and various public entities that receive federal funds.

Another of its high-profile cases recently ended in four convictions, including that of former Ohio deputy state treasurer Amer Ahmad, related to a government kickback scheme. Ahmad has fled to Pakistan to avoid prison.

Barrios said the FBI’s Columbus presence is in line with its commitment to government integrity.

“Public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal investigative priority because citizens expect, and should always receive, good governance from their elected officials,” he said.

The FBI added some federal heft and resources to the existing constellation of law enforcers already pursuing government crime in Columbus, which includes Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe, the Ohio Ethics Commission, the state inspector general and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In the payday case, the FBI set up a fake business entity that wooed Weddington into accepting cash, campaign contributions and all-expenses-paid trips to South Beach, Miami, and California’s Napa Valley in exchange for legislation Weddington would introduce. Weddington ultimately pleaded guilty to bribery, election falsification and filing a false financial disclosure statement and served about two years in prison.

The FBI has said the effort was triggered by an email Weddington wrote to a payday loan industry lobbyist demanding “serious cheese” or a suite at a Cleveland Cavaliers game in connection with payday legislation being considered at the Statehouse.


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