BCDP Files Ethics Complaint Against State Rep. Candice Keller

Calls for investigation by Joint Legislative Ethics Committee

(HAMILTON)-  On June 20th, House Bill 297 was introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives.  State Representative Candice Keller (R-Middletown) was among its list of co-sponsors, even though the sole purpose of the legislation is to create state funding via a refundable tax credit for donations to organizations of which State Rep. Keller currently serves as an Executive Director and draws a salary.

According to every financial disclosure Keller has filed since first being a candidate for State Representative in 2015 with the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, Keller has reported receiving a salary somewhere between $50,000 and $99,000 a year as the Executive Director of a community crisis pregnancy center.  This salary would be in the same range as what she also already collects as a State legislator.  The median household income in Middletown is $39,116 a year.

After Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper questioned whether Keller was self-dealing in co-sponsoring HB 297, Keller issued a written statement claiming that “all proper protocols were followed before [Keller] signed [her] name onto the bill.”  Keller’s office, however, supplied nothing to support that claim, nor explained why it could not or why she nonetheless concluded she needed to publicly commit to refrain from voting on the legislation in the future. 

The proper protocol whenever a state legislator believes an official act may present a conflict of interest is to seek an advisory opinion from the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee (JLEC).  Public advisory opinions from JLEC legally give any legislator following them immunity “from criminal prosecutions, civil suits, or actions for removal from his or her office.”  Advisory opinions from JLEC are available on its website.  None have been issued for this year so far.  Nor does any House Journal reference the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives receiving Keller’s request to abstain from voting on HB 297 in the future as she claimed.

“Apparently, Republicans in Butler County learned nothing from the Dynus scandal about politicians using their office to enrich themselves.  Given her contradictory public statement over her unethical misconduct, I am officially calling on the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee to open an investigation of State Representative Keller’s obvious self-dealing in this matter.  After she voted against tax relief for the lowest income workers in her district, Keller used her office to support efforts to financially benefit private donors to her organization in order to enrich those donors, her organization and, through it, herself.  It is clear Keller viewed HB 297 as a way to help repair the finances of her organization and prevent any further loss of her personal income from it.  If Ohio’s ethics laws truly do allow such a publicly brazen act of self-dealing, then Ohio needs better ethics laws and better legislators to push for them,” said Brian R. Hester, Butler County Democratic Party Executive Committee Chair. 

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A copy of the following related documents is available for viewing and downloading from the party’s Scribd account for your review, use and reference:

BACKGROUND

Keller has reported receiving a salary between $50,000 and $99,000 as Executive Director of a “crisis pregnancy center” every year she has filed financial disclosure reports.  Started with 2015 when she was just a candidate for the Ohio House, Candice Keller has consistently reported receiving a salary as the Executive Director of the Community Pregnancy Center.  In those same reports, she reported receive a salary within the same range as a state legislator after being elected. [Source: Financial Disclosure Statements of Candice Keller on file with JLEC for 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.]

According to federal tax returns of Keller’s organization, her organization ran deficits at least from 2015 through 2017.  In 2017, Keller’s organization saw an over $98,000 drop in revenues and the organization cut her annual salary by over $8,000 a year.  [Source: the 2016 and 2017 Annual Form 990s of the “Community Pregnancy Center” located in Middletown, Ohio, accessed from the IRS website.]

By 2017, Keller’s reduced salary at her organization still comprised of nearly a third of all revenue the organization took in. [Source: 2017 Annual Form 990 of the “Community Pregnancy Center” located in Middletown, Ohio, accessed from the IRS website.]

The median household income in Middletown, where Keller resides and represents in Columbus, is $39,116 a year. [Source: Census Bureau, 2017 American Community Survey (ACS) data.]

The recent House version of the state biennium budget proposed “eliminating state income taxes for those earning less than $22,500 a year” and an additional 6.6% income tax cut for everyone else.  [Source: Dayton Daily News (5/9/19), “Ohio House budget includes tax cuts, boost in minimum teacher pay.”]

Keller was one of just nine members of the Ohio House to vote against the state budget with its income tax cuts.  [Source: House Journal (5/9/19), HB 166 vote on passage, pg. 9.]

The following month, Keller co-sponsored HB 297, which would give a 50% refundable tax credit to donation to centers like the one she operates.  [Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer (7/1/2019), “Ohio House bill offers tax credit for donations to controversial ‘crisis pregnancy centers’” and text of HB 297.]

State legislators concerned about potential conflicts of interest may publicly seek an advisory opinion from JLEC and if they then follow the actions recommended in that opinion, such a member is immune from civil suit, criminal prosecution or removal proceedings. All advisory opinions of JLEC are a matter of public record.  Despite Keller’s claim that she followed protocol before co-sponsoring HB 297, JLEC has not issued any public advisory opinions this year. [Source:  Revised Code Section 102.08(C) and JLEC website.]

Ohio law prohibits any public official from using their office or the influence of their office to secure anything of value or the promise or offer of anything for value that is such character as to manifest a substantial and improper influence upon the performance of that official’s duties. A violation of this law is punishable as a first-degree misdemeanor.  [Source: Revised Code Section 102.03(D); 102.99(B).]