Ken Blackwell (Photo: pbs.org)

Responding to what he dubbed an “11th hour conversion” by his opponent in the Ohio Republican gubernatorial primary, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell dismissed Attorney General Jim Petro’s proposed legislation in the face of campaign-finance allegations, calling him a “fraud on issues of reform” in an interview with WorldNetDaily.

Blackwell, who drew national attention during the 2004 presidential campaign in his role as vote supervisor in the crucial swing state, charged Petro has cost Ohio taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars for his role in an extensive “pay-to-play” scheme in which lawyers allegedly have been awarded unbid contracts in exchange for campaign contributions.

“Jim Petro is a clear and present danger to the well-bring of our state and good government,” said Blackwell, seen by some pundits as a rising GOP star in the mold of President Reagan. “He has created an elaborate pay-to-play scheme that is his own personal ATM for campaign cash.”

Petro has denied any wrongdoing, calling charges the Ohio Republican Party is awash in a pay-to-play culture “largely a misperception.” He, nevertheless, yesterday said if elected governor, his first initiative would be a bill to bar vendors from contributing to officeholders who award them contracts, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Petro’s attorney general office would not respond to Blackwell’s comments, referring WND to his campaign headquarters, which did not reply by press time.

As WorldNetDaily reported, the FBI is investigating claims against Petro by lawyers who say they lost state contracts because they did not contribute to the attorney general’s election campaign.

Denying the allegations, Petro argues the lawyers are tied to Summit County Republican Party Chairman Alex Arshinkoff, who has long disliked him.

But a Petro fund-raiser, Kyle Sisk, has resigned after allegations he orchestrated a scheme that enabled vendors and influential Republicans to circumvent campaign contribution limits by bringing in millions of dollars of corporate money through local party accounts and political nonprofits.

Blackwell asserted Petro has “gutted his staff of reasonably priced government lawyers, used a system of contracts to establish a network of special counsels and pushed the burden of funding them to other agencies that use taxpayer dollars.”

“The clear evidence is that [Petro] has created a political cash machine that has been subsidized by the taxpayers of the state of Ohio,” Blackwell told WND. “That is observable, measurable and real. No 11th hour conversion is going to explain that away. No promise of future good behavior can explain this abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

Cleveland attorney Kenneth Seminatore, who first raised allegations against the Ohio GOP in 2004 when two of his clients filed civil racketeering charges, said Petro should be given no credit for his new proposal.

“It’s amazing what a private civil racketeering action and a criminal investigation by the Justice Department can accomplish,” he said in a drafted response provided to WND.

Seminatore, who says his investigations of the scandal have found no wrongdoing by Blackwell, contended the Petro proposal has huge loopholes and a “moral chasm that make it laughable.”

Petro maintains, however, the plan has a simple standard with no loopholes, explaining it would forbid an officeholder from awarding a contract to anyone who has given money to him or any other candidate or holder of the office within two years, the Cleveland paper reported.

“All this discussion that we’ve heard about pay-to-play, it’s gone on for 100 years,” Petro said, according to the Plain Dealer. “I think the one way to stop it, without having any gray areas, without having any limits, is to simply say if you’re a vendor, don’t start contributing to officeholders. … That’s off-limits.”

But Seminatore contends Petro’s plan would not ban individuals or companies seeking state business from having their lawyers, consultants who are not lobbyists, or subcontractors make contributions on behalf of vendors, “as they now routinely do.”

Moreover, insisted the Cleveland attorney, Petro’s proposal “does not prevent vendors or their cronies from continuing to contribute to the Ohio Republican Party, the Republican Governor’s Association, Republican County parties and others who regurgitate the contributions back to the candidate political campaign funds.”

For the plan to have real teeth, Seminatore maintains, it would have to ban contributions made by any lawyer, consultant or subcontractor and eliminate all conduits now used to launder money.

“Because all that is so difficult to enforce, however, the reform legislation would also have to eliminate no-bid contracts in their entirety,” he said.

The “moral gap” in the proposal, Seminatore concluded, is Petro “wants to be able to buy the governor’s mansion for himself and allow some of his Republican cronies … to return to the attorney general’s office with the current proceeds in their considerable campaign coffers. … ”

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