From his fifth-floor KeyBank building office overlooking the Statehouse, Dave Yost admitted that he’s feeling political heat.
“This hasn’t been the most comfortable week of my life, I’ll tell you that,” the Republican state auditor said in an interview last week.
The kitchen can get pretty hot when powerful members of your own party — Gov. John Kasich, Senate President Keith Faber and House Speaker William G. Batchelder — are telling you to stand down.
Also turning up the temperature on Yost was his friend and 2012 campaign manager, Matt Borges, executive director of the Ohio Republican Party and Kasich’s choice to be the party’s next chairman.
“Matt called me after this broke and informed me that he thought I had chosen poorly.”
Yost’s transgression: He had the audacity to do his job.
After months of unfruitful negotiations with JobsOhio for its financial records, Yost issued a subpoena for them on March 6, putting Kasich’s privatized economic-development corporation on notice that it had until Tuesday to comply.
Yost’s action drew a quick response from Kasich, who said the auditor was entitled to audit JobsOhio’s public funds, but not its private funds. Nobody yet has satisfactorily explained how those pots of money can be separated, especially since, as Yost notes, “but for” the public funds JobsOhio would not have the private money to lure jobs to Ohio.
In the interview, Yost reasserted that state law gives him authority to audit JobsOhio. But Faber and Batchelder stood ready to limit that authority through legislation. Late last week, they were waiting to see whether Kasich and Yost could reach an agreement on how to proceed.
Yost seems unlikely to settle for anything that doesn’t give taxpayers a full accounting of JobsOhio. He has proved over the past 14 months — particularly through the marvelous work his office has done in the Columbus City Schools scandal — that he will audit without fear or favor.
“My whole life I’ve been speaking truth to power,” Yost said. He did so as a reporter for the defunct Columbus Citizen-Journal, as Delaware County auditor when he presented one of his biggest campaign supporters with a $750,000 bill for back taxes, and as county prosecutor going after fellow GOP officials.
“This just isn’t new ground for me,” he said, referring to the JobsOhio brouhaha.
Kasich’s concerns about where Yost might go with his audit of JobsOhio are not without merit. In following the financial incentives flowing from JobsOhio to private companies — say, for instance, Chrysler — might Yost then assert purview to audit all of Chrysler’s financial records?
Legally, Yost said, he would have authority to do that under state law authorizing his office to audit “the accounts of private institutions, associations, boards and corporations receiving public money for their use.” Practically speaking, Yost said he has no intention of doing so.
Yet his job is to follow public money to assure taxpayers it is not misspent or corrupted. And it’s hard to distinguish between JobsOhio’s public and private money. After all, JobsOhio didn’t have access to the state’s liquor money for 18 months, leaving the private entity to raise money from secret donors and through state grants. What money went into which pot? How can you know without a full audit?
“The connection to the public money is so great it warrants being treated as public money,” Yost argued.
Statehouse Democrats view JobsOhio as a scandal waiting to happen, warning that the combination of secretiveness and lots of cash is a recipe for favoritism, cronyism, quid pro quos and improper campaign fundraising. Yost said he has no such concerns as long as Kasich is governor.
“I don’t have any indication that that’s true, and that’s not consistent with John Kasich’s character,” he said. “But leaving the personalities aside and the integrity of individuals, the system needs to be proofed against those kinds of potential problems.”
Toward that end, Kasich might do himself a favor by subjecting JobsOhio to Yost’s audits.
Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org