In an exclusive interview with The Ohio Star, the lawyer representing a whistleblower and former co-campaign manager for Joseph K. Blystone‘s quest for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Sarah Chambers that the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are probing Blystone’s campaign finances.
“Sarah and I met with them on Thursday, November 18, in their Columbus office,” said Scott A. Pullins, a Mount Vernon attorney whose practice has included representing many campaigns and campaign law compliance clients.
Pullins also said Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and his Campaign Finance Division, received evidence of Blystone campaign finance misconduct and took no action.
FBI reaches out to Chambers
The graduate of The Ohio State University and the Capital University Law School said he also took note that FBI Special Agent Blaine Wetzel, one of the agents who interviewed Chambers that day, was listed as a virtual attendee at the December 16 Ohio Elections Commission hearing, where the commission reviewed the 51-page campaign finance complaint filed by Chambers and other former senior Blystone campaign staffers October 28 against Blystone, his wife, and campaign treasurer, M. Jane Blystone and his campaign committee Friends of Joe Blystone.
In the complaint, Chambers, and others detailed how Blystone and his wife took in thousands of dollars of undocumented cash and misreported contributions to the campaign—including Chambers’ own contributions, which she said she had taken from her daughter’s college fund.
The attorney said it started with a phone call to his client. “Sarah got a phone call from their office—it’s the Central Ohio Public Corruption Task Force—and they asked her to return the call; I returned the call with her, and then we set up a meeting the following week.”
As her attorney, Pullins said he was curious whether Chambers was in legal jeopardy.
“I asked them early on what the situation was,” he said. “She’s not a target. She’s a witness, and it was voluntary for her to come in, and she wanted to cooperate.”
Based on the questions asked by the FBI agents, the lawyer said Blystone is the subject of a campaign finance investigation.
“The best I can tell, they’ve been looking at Joe Blystone’s campaign finances, probably, at least, since his semi-annual report in July,” said the member of the Knox County Republican Central Committee and the Ohio Taxpayers Association.
“They didn’t tell me anything specifically, but they seemed to know that complaint inside out,” he said. “Looks like they’ve been monitoring his Facebook and social media presences pretty closely.”
Before Pullins and Chambers met with the FBI, the charter school board member said he chanced upon seeing Phillip Richter, the Ohio Elections Commission’s executive director, and the two men talked about the Blystone case.
Richter told Pullins that the FBI’s new agent-in-charge for the Southern District of Ohio Field Office, which has jurisdiction for Columbus, is the same office whose agents reached out to Chambers, called and introduced himself to the OEC executive director, he said.
The FBI agent-in-charge also told Richter that the bureau was taking a look at the Blystone campaign’s finances, he said.
OEC votes 7-0 to hold a full hearing to review Chambers’ complaint against Blystone
Pullins said at the December 16 preliminary hearing; the commission had a number of options.
“They can find a violation of some kind right-off-the-bat, issue a fine or something along that set, or they can just dismiss the complaint,” he said.
“Opposing counsel asked them to dismiss the complaint,” he said.
“We argued that we’ve shown more than enough to show probable cause that the violations occurred and to request a full hearing,” he said.
Pullins said the charges spelled out in the complaint rise to the level of criminal violations.
“We think this complaint is serious enough to be referred to a prosecutor, which is one of the things the elections commission has the authority to do,” he said.
Blystone’s most recent campaign finance report was enough to alert authorities to malfeasance, he said.
“You know, the big red flag we’ve seen—alleged—there is $88,000 in cash contributions of $25 or less,” he said.
“We’ve got multiple witnesses that show that—and they’ve said under oath—that basically, he just passed the bucket around at these events and people threw in cash, or put cash in envelopes, which are serious campaign finance violations, and really the staff counsel agreed with us that there was probable cause to go to a full hearing,” Pullins said.
The commission voted 7-0 to proceed, but no date, but the commission did not set a date for the full hearing on the Chambers’ complaint, he said.
Pullins: Chambers, others felt Blystone betrayed them
Pullins said he started representing Chambers after she filed her complaint.
Although she filed the complaint pro se, or for herself, he helped her put it together, and then after it was filed, he said he became her counsel for the matter.
The attorney said as he worked with Chambers and other former campaign staffers and volunteers, who all wanted Blystone to defeat Gov. R. Michael DeWine, he grew aware of how difficult a step it was for them to expose how Blystone ran his campaign.
“When you look at some of the other folks, who provided affidavits—I mean—they were all key leaders, Sarah was a co-campaign manager, and there were other people, who were regional directors, regional leaders, and they were frustrated about a lot that went on over the DeWine administration, and they thought Joe was the real deal,” he said.
“They really put their hearts and souls into it, and then it turned out that he’s really nothing more than a fake and a fraud,” the lawyer said.
Pullins: Sec’y of State LaRose’s refusal to act forced Chambers to file her complaint
“The reason that Sarah and the others filed their complaint, in my opinion, was Frank LaRose, and his office, are not doing their job,” Pullins said.
“All those things, these campaign finance reports, should have triggered an automatic audit with the Campaign Finance Division,” he said. The state’s Campaign Finance Division operates under the secretary of state.
Chambers sent Secretary LaRose’s office her complaint before she filed it with the elections commission, he said. “The response we’ve gotten, both publicly and privately: ‘Well, if you think there’s something wrong, then file a complaint with the elections commission,’ and that’s what we did.”
Pullins said the problem with the response is that over and over again, in his campaign finance practice, he had seen the secretary of state’s office and the Campaign Finance Division proactively engage with campaigns when things were not right.
“I’ve done this for many years, and I’m very experienced and familiar with the campaign finance system,” he said. “I’ve represented clients in front of the Ohio Elections Commission over the years quite a bit. I do filings for political actions committees, for campaign committee and other entities.”
Given his experience with other campaigns and committees, Pullins said he is shocked LaRose ignores the Blystone campaign’s handling of its books.
“I have clients, where the Campaign Finance Division regularly reaches out: ‘Hey, can we talk to you about filing an addendum?’ or ‘We need to see copies of canceled checks,’ for example,” he said.
Blystone’s representation of his cash contributions is precisely the type of issue that would prompt the Campaign Finance Office to get involved, he said.
“Over a third of his contributions in that report he alleges were contributions of $25 or less—that should have triggered an immediate audit from the Campaign Finance Division,” Pullins said.
“I am just dumbfounded that the secretary of state did not bring his complaint in this,” he said.
The Mount Vernon attorney said he suspects LaRose is staying on the sidelines because he is afraid Blystone will turn on him.
“There have been no actions, and I really think it comes down to that Frank LaRose is politically scared,” he said.
“He’s frightened of this guy, and he’s giving him a pass.”
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Neil W. McCabe is a the national political editor of The Star News Network. Send him news tips: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @neilwmccabe2.
Photo “Joe Blystone” by Joe Blystone.