Created on Monday, 18 February 2013 Written by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — A state senator backed actions in the Ohio General Assembly that resulted in a benefit of more than $800,000 to a nonprofit he helped found, a newspaper reported Sunday.
Republican state Sen. Chris Widener of Springfield was in the Ohio House when he supported Senate changes to House Bill 160, the Dayton Daily News reported Sunday. The bill helped the nonprofit Springfield-based Ohio Equine and Agricultural Association get out from under $413,877 in taxes and penalties, and Widener inserted an amendment into the 2009 state budget bill that allowed Clark County to levy a bed tax that generated $412,890 in revenue for Ohio Equine, the newspaper reported.
Widener told The Associated Press in an email Sunday that he spent his "entire career maintaining the highest standards of ethical conduct" and that any "legislative action I have taken has been guided by those principles, and interpretations of Ohio ethics laws I have received from the legislative inspector general."
The Ohio Revised Code allows legislators to rely on advisory opinions from the Joint Legislative Ethics Commission when carrying out their official duties, "which I have done since serving," he said.
There has been no determination that any ethics laws were violated, according to the newspaper.
Widener was a proponent of Ohio Equine's exposition center, which was seen as a tourism draw for horse shows and other events and began serving on the nonprofit's board in 2004. The newspaper reports Widener didn't disclose his board membership on his annual financial disclosure statements filed with the Joint Legislative Ethics Commission while on the board and that he was still a member when the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce asked for legislation to create a convention facilities authority that could levy a hotel bed tax to finance tourism-related organizations. He resigned from the board a month before legislative action on the budget bill.
Widener has said he guarded against any conflict by resigning and canceling a startup loan guarantee he'd earlier provided the nonprofit.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said he has discussed the issue with the legislative inspector general, but wouldn't comment on any details.
Ohio Equine, which was required to pay taxes for land leased from Clark County, had its application for a tax exemption dismissed in 2006 because state law only allowed property owners to apply. The Senate-added provision to House Bill 160 allowed land contract holders, long-term leaseholders and others to apply for exemption.
After that went into effect, Ohio Equine sought and received a tax exemption in 2011, with the Ohio Department of Taxation forgiving the $413,877 tax bill for 2007 to 2010. Ohio Equine is making payments on $375,880 in taxes from 2004 to 2006, the newspaper reported.
Widener says HB 160 allowed all nonprofit groups to file for real estate tax exemption and wasn't retroactive.
He said he understood the bill didn't affect Ohio Equine's real estate taxes owed from 2004 to 2008, and that if it had helped the nonprofit, Ohio Equine wouldn't owe nearly $400,000 in taxes.
There was no answer to calls Sunday to the exposition center.