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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ex-senator in ethics inquiry - lowering of workers’ comp rate for his business raises questions

A former state senator could face criminal charges for his efforts to obtain significant reductions in the workers’ compensation rates paid by his company.


A former state senator could face criminal charges for his efforts to obtain significant reductions in the workers’ compensation rates paid by his company.

Jeffry Armbruster, a Republican from North Ridgeville, was served with a complaint by the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee in December informing him that the group thinks he might have violated either state law or the code of ethics. Armbruster left the legislature at the end of 2006 because of term limits.

After a future hearing, the committee could refer the matter to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.

A key concern is that Armbruster, while serving as vice chairman of the committee that oversaw issues related to the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, allegedly called bureau officials into his Statehouse office to discuss getting his rate reduced.

The former senator, who has said he did nothing improper, is part of a broader investigation into whether the bureau performed improper "manual overrides" of its computer system to lower premiums for certain employers.

There are legitimate reasons for such reductions, but bureau auditors flagged 27 of 36 overrides they examined from January 2003 to September 2005 for not following agency rules or not having enough documentation to justify lower rates.

An internal e-mail written by a bureau official last March appeared to question a reduction for Armbruster and noted "this is not the first time we helped him/his business out."

His company, Armbruster Energy, got an 88 percent reduction in the base rate paid in 2005. The bureau does not release dollar amounts of the savings.

Attempts to reach Armbruster at his home and through his attorney were unsuccessful. A former North Ridgeville mayor and councilman, Armbruster told The Dispatch in December that he always has been careful to keep his roles as businessman and politician separate.

"My business is my business, and I recognize that I cannot impact or advantage my business based on my position as a state senator, as a mayor or a city councilman — and I have never done that in any case whatsoever," he said.

Any matter before the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee will not become public until the 12-member panel — six Republican lawmakers and six Democrats — takes formal action.

It takes eight members to refer a matter for prosecution, the only punitive action the panel can take against a former member.

Generally, a committee investigation goes through several steps and can end with a formal hearing, after which the committee will state publicly whether it is recommending criminal prosecution or dismissing the matter, said Tony Bledsoe, the legislative inspector general.

Bledsoe would not discuss specific cases before the committee but said that, by law, a private hearing is similar to a court proceeding, with the committee acting as judge and jury.

O’Brien said he is aware of the Armbruster matter but is not yet taking action.

"When JLEC has filed a complaint, we await their conclusion of the proceedings before we do anything," he said.

If prosecuted, sources said, Armbruster could face a misdemeanor charge of conflict of interest.

Other bureau e-mails showed that at least seven current or former legislators, as well as former Gov. Bob Taft’s office, had asked for consideration on behalf of the businesses involved in questionable overrides.

In contrast to Armbruster, who was acting on his own behalf, other legislators were able to deny wrongdoing by saying they simply were performing constituent service by contacting the bureau on behalf of companies in their districts.

Dispatch reporter Mark Niquette contributed to this story.

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