State auditor candidates spar over ECOT and political corruption

COLUMBUS — Celina Republican Keith Faber once held one of the three most powerful posts in state government as president of the Ohio Senate. Now the state lawmaker is setting his sights on Ohio auditor, a job that would give him authority to examine the books of government entities across the state.

“I think if you talk about skills and abilities to do this job, there’s no question that my background and my knowledge and my ability to hit the ground running on day one transcends,” said Faber, who touts his state government experience.

Running against Faber is Democrat Zack Space of Dover, a lawyer who served in local government and represented eastern Ohio for two terms in Congress.

Space, 57, who has been out of office since January 2011, recently left a consulting job at Voyrs Advisors in Columbus to campaign full-time.

“I view the auditor’s office as uniquely positioned to address some of the issues in Ohio that have caused a loss of confidence and faith in government. I believe the loss of faith and confidence in government is one of the most pressing problems of our day,” Space said. He points to the influence of money in politics and gerrymandered political districts as reasons why Americans are losing faith.

In addition to serving as the taxpayers’ fiscal watchdog, the auditor sits on the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission, a powerful body charged with drawing legislative and congressional maps, which pay a huge role in who is elected and what policies are pursued.

Space calls himself “an avowed moderate” who wants to fix gerrymandering, which he views as corrosive.

Faber, who supported the redistricting reform plan that was ultimately adopted, said if elected auditor, he would follow the constitution.

Gerrymandering “has been a factor in drawing legislative and congressional districts in Ohio from the beginning of time. You can’t take politics out of a political process. I think the new constitutional process that we did went a long way to minimize the impact of politics in a political process but certainly you’re always going to have some political objectives,” Faber said.

A September 2011 email chain shows Faber relayed to GOP officials that he wanted his Mercer County property drawn into a favorable congressional district. Faber said he merely wanted to avoid splitting his home county into multiple congressional districts.

On the campaign trail, Faber and Space are trading jabs.

Space calls Faber a “central figure” in Statehouse scandals, including: allowing the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow to collect millions in state funds based on questionable enrollment figures, letting payday lenders charge low-income Ohioans some of the highest APR rates in the country and adopting a political map with gerrymandered districts.

“Keith Faber has been a primary actor in the pay-for-play culture of corruption that has gripped this General Assembly,” Space said.

Faber responded: “We could give you reams of information about how Zack Space knowingly and intentionally turned his back on his constituents when he was a congressman, including changing his position on a very important vote to his district — the cap and trade bill — on the same day Nancy Pelosi gave him $14,000. If you want to talk about direct links, that’s an important story that nobody seems to want to write.”

He noted that he voted in favor of the payday lending reforms, redistricting changes and a charter school reform bill.

Faber, 52, has been a lawmaker for nearly two decades: Ohio House member 2001-2006; Ohio Senate 2007-2016, including four years as president; Ohio House member 2017 to current. He also operates his own law firm.

In Columbus Monthly’s ‘rating the legislators’ issue in September 2016, Faber was named “most ambitious, most humorless, least compassionate, most arrogant, most aggressive campaign fundraiser” in the anonymous survey of Statehouse insiders.

During his career, Faber pushed through billions in state tax cuts, stumped for Donald Trump on the campaign trail, put the controversial ‘heartbeat’ abortion bill up for a vote during a lame duck session, argued for and voted in favor of the anti-union measure known as Senate Bill 5, and established a low-cost system for Ohioans to obtain public records that government entities have withheld.

In Congress, Space was known as a ‘blue dog Democrat’ who focused on expanding broadband internet to rural areas, advocating for stem cell research, and pursuing alternative energy options, according to the Almanac of American Politics. He lost favor in his coal-heavy district when he supported a plan to cap carbon emissions in 2009. He got ousted by Republican Bob Gibbs in 2010.

The hottest point of contention between Space and Faber is ECOT, which was once the largest online charter school in the nation until it abruptly shut down in January. State audits dating back to 2001 found problems with ECOT and a state audit released in May was referred to prosecutors for possible fraud charges. Ohio is currently suing to recoup millions from ECOT and its founder.

Democrats are arguing on the campaign trail that Republicans — including Faber — took campaign donations from ECOT players and turned a blind eye to fraud and abuse.

Faber, who received $36,513 from ECOT sources, stated that “Thanks to the strong charter school reforms put in place while I was Senate President” the online charter school ECOT “was caught and is out of business.”

Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize winning fact-checking effort service founded in 2007, rated Faber’s statement mostly false.

Faber said under his leadership, the Ohio Senate strengthened accountability and mandated accurate attendance records for online charter schools. “Our actions set the table” and now ECOT is out of business, he said.

Space said in a Tweet: “Keith Faber’s complicity in this — perhaps the largest political scandal in Ohio history — should disqualify him from serving as Auditor, the top taxpayer watchdog in the State.”

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