Ethics committee: Former state senator used influence to lower company rates
Former state Sen. Jeffry Armbruster could face criminal charges after the Ohio Joint Legislative Ethics Committee decided Thursday that he used his position to get lower insurance rates from the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation for a company he owned.
The committee forwarded its findings to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, who said that unless Armbruster and his attorney produce new information to clear the North Ridgeville Republican’s name, the case will be presented to a grand jury to consider misdemeanor ethics charges against him.
“He was doing double duty for both his company and the state,” O’Brien said of e-mails and telephone conversations Armbruster had in February 2006 with BWC employees.
Armbruster’s lawyer, Donald Brey, said Thursday that his client did nothing wrong when Armbruster inquired about mistakes he believed were made by the worker’s bureau in setting insurance rates when he closed one gas station company he owned and opened another.
“The hope was they would have exonerated him at this point rather than passing it on, but we’ll deal with it,” Brey said.
Armbruster, who did not return calls Thursday, has run three gas station companies in the past few years. One, Armbruster Energy Enterprises LLC, filed for bankruptcy in 2005. Another Pinzone-Armbruster Inc., has closed and Armbruster’s sole remaining company, Armbruster Energy Stores Inc., runs one gas station in Grafton.
Armbruster had contacted bureau workers when they mistakenly assigned the claims history from Armbruster Energy Enterprises to Armbruster Energy Stores instead of the history from Pinzone-Armbruster, which would have resulted in lower rates, according to an ethics committee report on the investigation.
On Feb. 2, 2006, Armbruster began an e-mail exchange with the bureau’s Director of Employer Consulting Todd Spence seeking an audit to correct the problem, the report stated.
During that time, Armbruster also was discussing changes in Ohio law with bureau workers that would allow potential buyers of a company to learn the company’s workers’ compensation claims history so they’d know what rate they would have to pay upfront.
Armbruster believed such a law would have helped him avoid the pricey rates he had to pay when Armbruster Energy Enterprises purchased several Columbus-area gas stations.
At the end of one conversation with the bureau’s Legislative Liaison Emily Hicks, Armbruster asked her to have Spence call him.
Brey said no one recalled exactly what was discussed during the Feb. 28, 2006, call between Armbruster, Hicks, Spence and Tom Sico, the bureau’s director of legal operations. And even if Armbruster did ask about the status of his audit, there was nothing wrong with doing so, he said.
“Any business has a right to call up the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to make sure they’ve assigned the right claims history to the client,” he said. “All Jeff did was ask, ‘How’s the audit coming?’”
Brey also said when Armbruster was discussing the issue with the bureau, he wasn’t actually being paid by the company, although his wife was.
The report stated that although Armbruster didn’t learn about his lower rate until 2007 after he left the Senate because of term limits, he still had used his influence to get the lower rate.
O’Brien said that if Armbruster is indicted, he likely will face two counts of conflict of interest that could result in six months in prison and a $1,000 fine for each charge. He didn’t believe a conviction on those charges would prevent Armbruster from running for public office in the future.
This isn’t the first time Armbruster’s gas stations have brought him unwanted scrutiny.
In 2002, his opponent in his re-election race, now state Sen. Sue Morano, D-Lorain, accused him of price gouging at his gas stations in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, although Armbruster denied any wrongdoing and won re-election.
The bureau also has had its share of scandals. Coin dealer and Republican fundraiser Tom Noe has been convicted of stealing more than $13 million from the rare-coin fund he managed for the agency. He is serving a lengthy prison sentence after being convicted of federal and state charges.
Former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft also pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges for failing to report gifts from Noe.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.