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Some Ohio Lawmakers Take No Chances, Pay for All Calls Following Audit

March 18, 1992

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ It’s not THE House bank scandal, but an ethics debate has broken out about lawmakers’ use of state credit cards for personal telephone calls.

State auditors have been checking and asking for explanations on thousands of phone calls made as far back as five years ago. The calls were made on state-supplied phones and with state credit cards.

Some state lawmakers who have reimbursed the government for the long- distance personal calls said Wednesday they even paid for business calls - just to be on the safe side.

″I think I paid the state of Ohio more than I should have,″ said state Sen. M. Ben Gaeth. ″But I don’t want any controversy over personal calls. It isn’t worth it.″

Gaeth was among 57 current and former legislators who have reimbursed the state for $7,155 in personal long-distance telephone calls as a result of an audit of state credit cards. He paid $162.74.

Gaeth said there was no connection between the payments and the uproar over revelations of check-bouncing by members of Congress. But he’s wary that some people might try to link the two.

″People are looking for issues ... and if in some of their minds it’s an issue it could be meaningful. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it,″ he said.

But Janet Lewis, executive director of non-profit government watchdog Common Cause-Ohio, said the reimbursements, combined with overdrawn accounts at the U.S. House bank, show a weakness in government.

″This reflects yet another problem with the system holding elected officials to a lower standard than the general public,″ she said. ″We aren’t allowed to do that at our jobs. It’s just not something that’s generally acceptable out there, yet it is in the Legislature. Why is that?″

Morris Tipton, executive secretary of the Ohio House, said lawmakers are paying for long-distance business calls to avoid any perception that they used public money for personal calls.

″They just write a check for the total amount so there’s no question,″ he said.

The audit primarily covers the period of July 1989 through June 1991, but it is not limited to that time.

″To go back two years is a long time for members to try and recollect the basis of every call,″ Tipton said. ″It’s almost an impossible task. I frankly can’t remember phone calls I made two weeks ago.″

And trying to draw the line between business and personal isn’t always easy.

State Rep. Jim Davis reimbursed the state $888.36, more than any other House member.

″I figured that I ended up paying for a lot of constituent calls that I made, but not being sure I went ahead and paid for them anyway,″ he said.

John Conley, spokesman for state Auditor Thomas E. Ferguson, said the audit results probably will not be ready before April 1.

Not among the legislators who have reimbursed the state was state Rep. Ron Amstutz. He said he doesn’t make personal calls with the state credit card.

″It makes it real simple,″ he said.

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