COLUMBUS – As Ohio House speaker, Republican Cliff Rosenberger has traveled the world, often on someone else’s dime.
England. France. Israel. Not to mention snazzy getaways in places such as Los Angeles and Boston.Paid for by outside groups or campaign donors – not out of Rosenberger’s $100,798 salary.
Excess travel can raise eyebrows at any time, but it can become ethically questionable when professional travel veers into travel for pleasure. Or when lawmakers are spending time at expensive or exclusive locations with people who are trying to convince them to pass or halt legislation.
On Friday, Rosenberger, of Clinton County, said the FBI is asking questions about him. He has retained a criminal lawyer as a precaution, he told the Dayton Daily News.
A House spokesman confirmed the information in that story to The Enquirer, but declined further comment. Rosenberger’s attorney, Columbus’ David Axelrod, said the Ohio speaker has not been subpoenaed or told he is under investigation. Axelrod is not representing anyone else in the matter and declined to say when Rosenberger had retained his services.
Shortly after the news broke, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine contacted Rosenberger to advise the speaker to resign if the FBI had a case, a DeWine spokesman confirmed. Rosenberger denied any wrongdoing.
It’s unclear what about Rosenberger interests the FBI, and the bureau has declined to comment. The FBI could be asking questions about his travel – or something else entirely. And questions from the FBI may not turn into charges.
The rules for legislators
Rosenberger, like other legislators, is allowed to travel for his job. He often pays for it through his campaign fund, the House GOP’s political arm or, in some cases, with a scholarship from an outside group. He must follow guidelines, such as disclosing who paid for the travel, and he cannot accept gifts worth more than $75 from an individual donor or lobbyist.
There are other rules. The trip must be related to his job, not purely for fun. He must not accept the gift of a trip in exchange for a legislative favor.
Violations of the law are hard to prove, but legislators have faced charges before. In 2010, then-state Rep. Carlton Weddington, D-Columbus, agreed to introduce legislation favorable to wine producers in exchange for all-expenses-paid trips to Napa Valley, California, and to Miami. Weddington resigned in 2012 and pleaded guilty to accepting the bribes in exchange for a three-year sentence.
In other cases, lawmaker travel is legal but raises eyebrows. For example, lawmakers around the country have received “scholarships” from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to attend fancy policy conferences. Those scholarships are paid by businesses that lobby lawmakers at the events. In some cases, lawmakers also ask donors to give money to ALEC, which ALEC then uses for those lawmakers’ travel.
The practice is ethically questionable. But in Ohio, taking the donor-funded scholarships currently is considered legal.
In other cases, lawmakers take free trips that rarely generate outrage. Ohio lawmakers from both parties have taken trips to Israel, paid for by a Zionist group. They learn about trade and agriculture in a country they believe Ohio should have a strong relationship with. Such trips, lawmakers say, inform their policy-making.
In England with Churchill’s granddaughter – and lobbyists
In August, Rosenberger joined five GOP leaders from other states on a four-day trip to London, paid for by the conservative GOPAC Education Fund’s Institute for Leadership Development. State Rep. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, also attended the trip, as a guest of Rosenberger, GOPAC Executive Director Jessica Curtis said.
The trip, documented in Facebook photos, included a chance to meet Celia Sandys, the granddaughter of the late British prime minister Winston Churchill. Also on the trip, according to the Facebook photos: two lobbyists for title lenders, Ohio’s Steve Dimon and South Carolina’s Leslie Gaines, who are a couple.
Title and payday lenders have been trying to stall legislation that would restrict that industry. Gaines could not be reached for comment, and Dimon declined to comment on whether he discussed the legislation with Rosenberger on the trip.
On other trips, Rosenberger pays with campaign contributions. During his first year as speaker, Rosenberger spent about $11,000 in campaign contributions on travel-related expenses. By 2017, that number had ballooned to about $33,000, according to campaign finance reports. Before leading the Ohio House, Rosenberger spent about $2,000 a year on travel expenses.
In comparison, Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, spent about $1,000 on hotels over the past 10 years combined. Obhof attended conferences paid for by GOPAC in 2011 and 2012. Former House Speaker Bill Batchelder, R-Medina, did not take any trips paid for by third parties, according to financial disclosure forms, and he spent little on travel.
Rosenberger’s campaign donors paid for a dinner meeting he held in February 2016 in Key West, Florida. He spent $463 on Ambrosia Japanese Restaurant there. During the same trip, he spent $1,213 at A&B Lobster House, all from campaign contributions.
He also has increased his involvement with outside groups that hold exclusive conferences and, at times, pay for lawmakers’ travel. For example, he is on the board of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan group that provides resources for lawmakers. In 2017, Rosenberger served as president of the National Speakers Conference, part of the nonpartisanState Legislative Leaders Foundation.
Both groups sometimes pay for lawmakers’ travel, and the state of Ohio pays dues to the groups using taxpayer money.
From Normandy to Key West
In September, Rosenberger took a free trip to Normandy, France, with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Billed as a leadership summit, the trip included a visit to La Fière Bridge and the American cemetery in Normandy. Legislative leaders from several other states also attended. NCSL reimbursed Rosenberger for his travel, according to emails obtained by The Enquirer.
Rosenberger also attended the organization’s annual meeting in Boston in August 2017, paying for his trip with campaign donations.
Meanwhile, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation paid for $5,360 of Rosenberger’s travel in 2016, according to the speaker’s financial disclosure forms. Disclosure forms for 2017 are due in May.
In 2015, Rosenberger led a group of 11 Republican and Democratic lawmakers to Israel. The Negev Foundation, a Cleveland-based Zionist nonprofit focused on agricultural innovations, paid nearly $5,000 for his trip, according to financial disclosure forms.
Editor’s note: A previous version of the story had a photo caption that misidentified Celia Sandys, the granddaughter of Winston Churchill.
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