A little battered and bruised, Ohio Senate President Keith Faber can take solace today knowing what often matters the most is the final score, not so much how you got there.
On Wednesday, Faber announced the Senate will move a bill in the next few weeks to shut down approximately 800 Internet cafes, also known as sweepstake parlors. The decision by the Celina lawmaker is the mortal blow needed to end the unregulated gambling industry, which has been accused of preying on the poor and lining the pockets of organized crime.
The House, led by state Rep. Matt Huffman, has already passed its version of a similar bill. The two chambers are expected to have little trouble drafting the final legislation that will be handed to Gov. John Kasich for his signature. Meanwhile, a moratorium on new cafes, which was due to expire June 30, is being extended.
Getting to that point came with Faber’s squeaky clean reputation being rolled in the dirt. Some felt the Senate was slow in acting, and when it finally was announced, it came after embarrassing accusations of campaign contributions and cozy dinners – charges Faber said were unfair, although he admitted, were partly the result of situations he could have handled better.
When House Bill 7 arrived in the Senate in late March, along with it came a gaggle of powerful lobbyists determined to stop the legislation. They argued the issue needed further study. With the Senate being on Easter break, the bill didn’t get its first hearing until mid-April. That’s when a series of follies resulted in all hell breaking loose.
Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, inexplicably announced after the hearing that the brakes were being put on the House bill, possibly even into next year, because senators needed more time to educate themselves on the cafes.
“I don’t know why he said that or if he was taken out of context,” Faber said Friday. “The majority of senators were clearly for a shutdown of some sort, and I, as president of the Senate, never made that decision or authorized such a statement.”
Then came the dinner.
Faber had scheduled that same night a meeting at the exclusive Hyde Park restaurant. The people he would be unfolding a napkin with were the lobbyists supporting the Internet cafes. The dinner was set up six weeks earlier, he said, but now the timing was terrible with its appearance of conflict. Yet, Faber managed to make it worse.
He was alerted that Columbus Dispatch political columnist Joe Hallett had learned about the dinner and was there at the restaurant. Foolishly, Faber responded by moving the dinner to another location. The fact that the mere presence of a reporter could cause such fear of participants brought even more suspicion: Was this another case of lobbyists and lawmakers breaking bread together because someone needed something and another had something to give? It happens all the time in politics. In 2012 alone, a Dispatch analysis showed that legislators and their caucuses reaped more than $110,000 from cafe interests, who clearly knew how to spread the money around.
Keith Faber would have been wise to have politely excused himself from that dinner invitation. Instead, he pulled up a chair.
“I handled it badly,” Faber admitted. “I should have invited Joe to sit down with us. There was nothing to hide. I often have dinner with people from both sides of an issue. It’s a way to get information. Our discussions during this dinner actually became heated at times. Each party paid for their own dinners. This absolutely was not a fund-raiser.”
Knowing Keith Faber as we do, we have no reason to doubt his statement. His reputation of being squeaky clean isn’t by accident – he earned it over a long political career. Without a doubt, however, he handled the events surrounding the dinner poorly.
Hopefully the experience has reminded him about the perception of conflict. Being a former prosecutor, he should know all about that danger.
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News.