Ohio lawmaker indicted on bribery charge

ANN SANNER JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- An Ohio state lawmaker resigned and surrendered to authorities Tuesday after being indicted on charges of bribery, election falsification and filing a false ethics statement.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said he believes the felony bribery charge handed down against state Rep. W. Carlton Weddington, of Columbus, is the first of its kind against a state lawmaker since 1912.

O'Brien and FBI agent Edward Hanko said charges against the second-term Democrat resulted from an undercover operation.

The FBI set up a phony business entity, whose name authorities declined to divulge, that sent Weddington on all-expenses-paid trips last year worth $16,000 to South Beach, Miami, and California's Napa Valley, and gave him additional cash and campaign contributions. O'Brien said the trips were three or four days each.

In exchange, Weddington is alleged to have offered to introduce legislation on the entity's behalf -- including such steps as requesting a draft bill, circulating a co-sponsor letter and writing a press release.

O'Brien said it was important to authorities that the bill prompted by the sting was never introduced.

The indictment charges that Weddington failed to report the trips and gifts on both his state ethics report and his campaign finance report. Both the allegedly falsified forms were submitted in February.

Weddington faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted on all counts. His arraignment is scheduled for Friday, O'Brien said.

Weddington, 41, served on the Columbus Board of Education until he was first elected to the Ohio House in 2008. Prior to Tuesday's resignation, he was the ranking Democratic member of the Local Government Committee, and also sits on the House finance and criminal justice panels.

His attorney, Sam Shamansky, said Weddington surrendered at an FBI office and was then released on a recognizance bond, meaning that he'll pay no money but promise to appear at future court proceedings. Shamansky said his client would plead not guilty at his arraignment

Officials said more charges could be coming involving unspecified individuals; Weddington is cooperating.

House Speaker William Batchelder read Weddington's resignation letter on the House floor during Tuesday's voting session. The resignation was accepted with no discussion. The letter made no mention of the allegations.

Batchelder told reporters he was informed of the indictment Tuesday morning but said he did not know what it involved.

"This is a terrible disappointment to me, and I know it is to the other members who rely on one another's word, who believe that members are proceeding out of a desire to do the right thing," Batchelder said. "Their whole participation here is dependent upon the veracity of the members, so this indeed is a very sad day."

According to the indictment, Weddington accepted the trips, cash and contributions offered by undercover agents with the knowledge they were intended to corrupt or influence him.

The investigation began in 2010, around the time The Columbus Dispatch reported on an exchange between Weddington and an official with the Durham, N.C.-based Center for Responsible Lending, executive vice president Keith Corbett. The newspaper reported that Weddington told Corbett that he wanted $2,500 donated to the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus' foundation before the group would agree to meet with Corbett about payday lending.

Weddington told the paper that Corbett had mischaracterized their conversation. A message left with Corbett's office Tuesday seeking comment wasn't immediately returned.

Rep. Sandra Williams, president of the black caucus, told reporters the group had no idea about the allegations.

"We just pray that this was the only person that was involved," she said. "But to the best of my knowledge, nobody else was involved in anything dealing with any trips or any bribes or anything else."

Williams, a Cleveland Democrat, said she did not know what the legislation was about. She said she has not been questioned about it, and Weddington had never brought it up to her.

"If it in fact is true, it was just a lapse in better judgment," she said.

Weddington succeeded fellow Democrat Joyce Beatty in the 27th Ohio District in Columbus. He was re-elected in the March 6 primary, and Beatty won the Democratic nomination for a newly drawn Columbus seat in the U.S. House.

O'Brien said Weddington would withdraw his candidacy for re-election and ask his name be removed from November ballots.

Weddington was convicted on a drunken driving charge in 2009. He had pleaded no contest after police in suburban Grandview Heights said he was driving 82 mph in a 45-mph zone. He was fined $375 and sentenced to three days in an alcohol-awareness program and one year of probation.

House Democratic Leader Armond Budish said the caucus was praying for Weddington's family.

"These are very serious and very shocking allegations," he said in a statement. "Any severe breach of the public trust, as this may be, deserves the most thorough and serious treatment by law enforcement. Public corruption at any level of government is absolutely unacceptable."

Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said he was "disheartened" by the news of Weddington's resignation.

"Elected officials must serve their constituents and place them first before their own careers and personal reward," Redfern said in a statement.

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Associated Press writer JoAnne Viviano contributed to this report.