Even before office move is complete, Ohio Sec. of State LaRose appears to blur ethical lines

By: - October 5, 2023 5:00 am

A screenshot of Ohio Sec. of State Frank LaRose’s post about his appearance on Steve Bannon’s show from his verified government account on X (formerly Twitter).

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose last week recorded a campaign interview that appeared to take place in the building where he is moving his taxpayer-funded state offices. LaRose didn’t respond to questions, but the backdrop of the interview seemed to preclude the possibility that it was set in any other building.

It’s unclear whether LaRose’s remote interview with right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon was shot in the offices of his campaign attorneys or on the floor where LaRose will be administering Ohio elections, including his own. But with LaRose saying that he doesn’t have a headquarters for his U.S. Senate campaign, the interview intensifies questions about whether he plans to seek office out of the same tax-funded space from which he’ll run the election, or from one a few floors away.

LaRose posted on Sept. 29 about his appearance on Bannon’s show from his verified government account on X (formerly Twitter).

LaRose hasn’t responded to repeated questions from the Capital Journal about the move. But it would be improper for him to engage in campaign activities in the downtown Columbus building, said Mia Lewis of Common Cause Ohio, because it’s vital to keep the work of running a fair election walled off from that of trying to win one.

“You have to keep the campaign and the government work separate,” she said. “Once those things start to blur, it becomes harder and harder for voters to trust their elected officials.”

Questionable move

The situation has already raised questions about appearances and propriety. 

LaRose is the state’s top elections administrator at the same time that he seeks one of the state’s top political prizes — a seat in the U.S. Senate. Last month, WCMH Channel 4 reported that LaRose was moving the secretary of state’s office into the same building he registered with the Federal Election Commission for his Senate Campaign.

LaRose’s campaign lawyers are with the firm BakerHostetler and are located at the top of the building, which is along the scenic Scioto Mile at 200 Civic Center Drive. (Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.)

LaRose’s campaign lawyers are with the firm BakerHostetler and are located at the top of the building, which is along the scenic Scioto Mile at 200 Civic Center Drive. Meanwhile, the secretary of state’s office will be several floors below when the move is completed as soon as next month.

Ethics experts said that co-locating the two could at least give the appearance of impropriety, and could at worst tempt LaRose and his staff to campaign for the Senate using taxpayer resources meant to ensure free and fair elections.

Late last month, LaRose told a friendly interviewer — IHeartRadio’s Brandon Boxerthat he didn’t have a campaign office and that it was just a coincidence that his campaign lawyers are five floors above where he’s moving the secretary of state’s office. LaRose added that he was unaware that his state office and his campaign attorneys would be building-mates when the decision to move was made.

“I don’t have a campaign office,” LaRose said. “It just so happens that five floors above us is the law firm that filed the paperwork so they used their address on my Federal Elections Commission paperwork. This is the most silly non-story ever.”

Boxer repeated LaRose’s claim that the move is a good deal for taxpayers because rent at the new location is $11,000 a year less than at the Broad Street location where the Secretary of State has operated for 20 years.

“You’re actually saving us over $11,000,” Boxer said.

To which LaRose replied: “This is going to be a good deal for the taxpayers and it’s also going to be a good deal for the 130 hardworking state employees who come to work for us every day.”

That ignores the $600,000 the move is expected to cost. The rental savings won’t cover that until 2077.

Telling backdrop

More significantly, LaRose and his team haven’t responded when asked repeatedly if he’s participated in interviews or other campaign activities in the building — a question that becomes even more pertinent if LaRose doesn’t have a campaign office. 

Last week, LaRose did an interview with Bannon, who blurs not only ethical boundaries, but also those between journalism and propaganda. 

The former adviser to Donald Trump was indicted last year on New York state charges of ripping off people who thought they were giving money to build a wall on the southern border. Bannon was indicted federally on similar charges in 2020, but was pardoned by Trump. 

In the Bannon interview, LaRose is seated in front of a window that looks out over a north-westerly bend in the Scioto River. Just past LaRose’s left shoulder is a six-story former state office building at 145 S. Front St. Beyond that is the Moyer Judicial Center, which houses the Ohio Supreme Court. And beyond that is the Leveque Tower, the highlight of the Columbus skyline since its completion in 1927.

A visitor wasn’t allowed earlier this week beyond the lobby of the building at 200 Civic Center Drive. But the deck of the parking garage adjacent to the north side of the building lies between it and the three buildings seen in the backdrop of LaRose’s interview. The view from there seems to make clear that LaRose did the interview in the building at 200 S. Civic Center Drive. Not only does the deck look out on the three buildings seen just off of LaRose’s shoulder, the height of the BakerHostetler building would obstruct such a view from the buildings that are farther down the Scioto.

The view from the parking deck of 200 Civic Center Drive. (Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.)

Where in the building LaRose might have recorded the interview is unclear. 

He appeared to be on a floor a little higher than the six-story former state office building. But it’s hard to tell if the angle is consistent with the seventh-floor space he told Boxer the Secretary of State’s office would occupy, or the 12th-floor Baker and Hostetler suite LaRose registered with the FEC, or with some other part of the building.


What’s quite clear is that LaRose intended to use the interview with Bannon to help his chances in the GOP primary. He wants to win the nomination and take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown next year.

LaRose didn’t talk much about secretary of state business, but he referred to election-denying Trump supporter Mike Lindell as “one of America’s great entrepreneurs.” 

Then LaRose — who touts his commitment to election integrity — made yet another bid for the endorsement of Trump, who last December called to “terminate” the U.S. Constitution so he could steal a presidential election that he lost in 2020.

LaRose told Bannon’s audience: “As a combat veteran, I know that you want to go into battle with a leader who is fearless and feared. Donald Trump is both of these things and that was why I was proud to endorse him and I’m looking forward to campaigning with him as we defeat Sherrod Brown here in Ohio and put (Trump) back in the White House.”

LaRose added that he would be “the first Green Beret serving in the United States Senate. I’m going to be the man who defeats Sherrod Brown once and for all.”

Screenshot of LaRose’s campaign website displayed on Steve Bannon show.

If that bit of politicking wasn’t clear enough, Bannon’s show then displayed a full-screen image of LaRose’s campaign webpage, with its red “DONATE” button at the top left.

Depending on where LaRose recorded the interview, that action might violate Section 3517.092 of the Ohio Revised Code, which says, “No public employee shall solicit a contribution from any person while the public employee is performing the public employee’s official duties or in those areas of a public building where official business is transacted or conducted.”

Proper boundaries

Lewis, of Common Cause, said the fact that it’s even plausible that LaRose might have recorded his interview with Bannon from state-leased space is reason enough to house the state’s election administrator in a building separate from one in which LaRose’s campaign is registered.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” she said. “You put up barriers to make sure nobody is tempted to take that shortcut. If your office as secretary of state is downtown and you have to drive somewhere else in order to do your campaign work, well there’s a reason for that. That’s to try to make sure you’re not cutting those corners. How easy it’s going to be and how tempting it’s going to be to cut those corners when the office is just upstairs or just downstairs.”

Even before the office controversy, LaRose had been criticized as being highly political while simultaneously being responsible for neutrally administering Ohio elections.

Among his controversies, LaRose was a member of a Republican-dominated redistricting commission that ignored seven orders from the Ohio Supreme Court to draw legislative and congressional districts that weren’t so gerrymandered; he led a misleading campaign to make it much harder for voters to initiate amendments to the state Constitution, and he led the Ohio Ballot Board in writing language describing a proposed abortion-rights amendment in loaded ways such as changing the word “fetus” to “unborn child.”

“This man is our secretary of state,” Lewis said. “He’s supposed to be in charge of elections in Ohio. And yet he seems to spend an incredible amount of his time putting his thumb on the scale of one issue or another — openly campaigning for one result or another.”

She added, “Now he’s running for office himself and the fact that he doesn’t see that it is unseemly at the very least to be operating as secretary of state while in the same building you’re running your campaign for Senate at the same time. How are Ohioans supposed to trust you when you have so much trouble putting the voters first?”



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.