Taft Warned About Fund-Raising

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Backers of a proposed Constitutional amendment to mandate drug treatment instead of jail time for some offenders say they'll be watching how Gov. Bob Taft and other opponents spend campaign funds.

Taft (pictured, above) wrote to individuals and corporations last month asking them to donate $25,000 or more to help him fight the issue.

While the fund-raising is allowed under Ohio's campaign-finance law -- and has been standard practice by governors fighting issue campaigns -- some warn that they're watching to make sure the Republican governor doesn't cross the line.

A news conference to kick off the campaign is planned by Taft's group, Ohioans Against Unsafe Drug Laws, on Monday morning at the Maryhaven drug- and alcohol-treatment center in Columbus.

The issue proposes changing the Ohio Constitution to permit drug treatment in lieu of jail time for eligible first- and second-time, nonviolent drug offenders.

It's backed by three billionaires, John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, New York philanthropist George Soros and Ohio insurance executive Peter Lewis. Their group, the Ohio Campaign for New Drug Policies, has successfully persuaded voters in California and four other states to soften drug laws.

The high-stakes contest virtually assures Ohioans will see millions of dollars spent on the drug issue this fall, much of it on TV advertising.

In his fund-raising letter, Taft called the drug issue an assault on Ohio's criminal justice system that is "seductive, deceptive and dangerous."

The governor asked for contributions of $5,000 to $25,000 but wrote, "There are no limits to the amount you or your company can contribute." Contributions to candidates, by contrast, are limited to $2,500 per election.

Individuals, companies and political action committees can contribute to the issue, Taft noted.

Edward Orlett, spokesman for the drug-ballot proponents, said there are dangers in Taft using his political fund-raising apparatus for the issue campaign.

Orlett said unlimited contributions solicited by Taft could subsequently be used in drug campaign ads featuring him. Thus, Taft's political campaign would benefit from his issue fund raising.

"We certainly would challenge that under Ohio election law," Orlett said.

Orest Holubec, Taft campaign spokesman, said Taft will "follow the letter of the law" in raising and spending money on the campaign.

Backers of the issue must obtain more than 335,000 valid signatures of registered voters by Aug. 7 to get the issue on the ballot.

Orlett said his organization plans to collect about 600,000 names just to be safe and is more than halfway to that goal.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)