The Ohio ethics commission had been investigating for two months whether Taft broke the law mandating that gifts over $75 be reported on financial disclosure forms. He could have received up to six months in jail on each count. The ethics violations have even party loyalists for the first time hinting that the embattled governor should step down. "I'm pretty confident that he should resign," said Neil Clark, a top GOP lobbyist. "I don't know how else we can rebuild the confidence of the people."
Before the sentencing, Taft apologized for what he has described as "errors and omissions" on his statements. "I have failed to live up to those high expectation and the expectations of the public. I am very disappointed in myself," he said. "There are no words to express the deep remorse that I feel over the embarrassment. I offer my sincere and heartfelt apology. I hope the people will understand that these mistakes were done unintentionally. I accept full responsibility for this mistake, and I'm sorry."
The charges filed by the Columbus City Prosecutor's Office stem from a widening corruption scandal that since June has forced the resignation of the head of the Bureau of Workers' Compensation and the conviction of Taft's former chief of staff on ethics charges, amidst an ongoing criminal probe of deep-pocketed GOP donor Tom Noe, a rare coin dealer and long time political ally of Taft's. The Ohio Attorney General says Noe stole as much as $4 million from state investment he was managing, and even Noe's lawyers concede that $13 million is missing from the fund.
Even before Wednesday's criminal charges, Taft-the great grandson of President William Howard Taft-was in no danger of winning a popularity contest. His approval numbers had sunk to 17%, the lowest of any governor in the U.S., and he was roundly chided for inept, ineffective leadership. Even without the ethical and legal charges hanging over his head, the two-term governor, who beat his badly underfunded Democratic opponent by five points in 2002, has only another 17 months to serve because of term limits.
Taft said Wednesday he has no intention of giving into stepped up calls for him to resign. "This governor will finish his term, " said press spokesman Mark Rickel. The Ohio House of Representatives could vote for impeachment based on the misdemeanor charges, but the Republican-dominated legislature is unlikely to do so.
Still, Ohio Democrats have been practically salivating as the scandal has unfolded, seeing a real chance to reclaim the governor's office next year in this Republican-controlled state. A recent bellwether for the 2006 elections was the surprisingly tight Congressional race earlier this month for an open House seat in a GOP-dominated southwestern district that the Republican candidate won by a narrow four-point margin. Ohio House Democratic Leader Chris Redfern told TIME before the sentencing: "If he's convicted and doesn't leave office, there certainly will be a drumbeat for his removal. I'm picking out my drumsticks." with reporting by Christopher Maag/Cleveland