Should Peggy Lehner Recuse Herself from Charter School Legislation?

By Scott Allan Pullins


            It’s a great question.  And the answers aren’t easy or simple ones.  But first some background.


            3rd Rail Politics has written extensively about the close personal and professional ties that State Senator Peggy Lehner has with the Thomas Fordham Institute.  Kate Walsh, her sister, is the President of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).  NCTQ, 3rd Rail Politics has learned, was formed by the Thomas Fordham Foundation in 2000 through an initial grant of $155,000.


            This simple history was not easy to obtain.  In fact, it was buried on page 16 of a 55 page, five year report published by the Thomas Fordham Foundation in 2002.  More history of the group can be found in this old Washington Post story.  None of this information is available on the NCTQ website.


            Besides the fact that her sister, Kate Walsh, was listed as a staff member with the group until recently, public records show that Lehner has also received gifts, meals, travel, and campaign contributions from either the Fordham Institute, the Fordham Foundation, or its top staffers and/or lobbyists.


            This closeness has paid off for Fordham.  A Cleveland Plain Dealer article in 2015 noted that Fordham essentially provided the staff and ideas for her 2015 charter reform bill.  Fordham staffers are frequently quoted in articles with Senator Lehner and they have appeared together in public forums. See the attached documents for a brief history of lobbying activity (page 14 of Ohio Ethics Filing) and campaign donations from Secretary of State’s office.


            But the question is, when do close relations between lobbying groups and legislators become too close?  It is not an easy question to determine.  And part of the reason is because the Ohio General Assembly have put themselves in charge of determining whether or not to abstain from a vote or not. 


            Section 4 of the Ohio General Assembly Code of Ethics states that Members are encouraged to request permission of the chair to abstain from voting on a piece of legislation when the member has reason to believe that he/she has a personal interest in legislation.  Unfortunately, the Ohio General Assembly has never defined what a personal interest in legislation actually means.


            However, in an interview in 2015, Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe stated that  abstentions can be legally required if a lawmaker or an immediate family member has a personal interest that might benefit or be harmed by a measure. Even in the absence of such an interest, lawmakers can sometimes err on the side of caution by voluntarily abstaining to stave off even the perception of a conflict of interest…


            Mr. Bledsoe gave that interview after five members of the Ohio General Assembly abstained from votes on marijuana legalization legislation.  One member of the Ohio House abstained because her sister was an investor in a project to legalize marijuana in Ohio.   A member of the State Senate abstained because another investor was the largest customer of his family’s beer and wine distributor.  Each of these lawmakers made the decision to abstain after consulting with Bledsoe’s office.


            Lawmakers are permitted to consult with the Legislative Inspector General and request either a formal or an informal opinion on such issues.  Senator Lehner could easily clear up this matter, either one way or the other, simply by making this request.


             I contacted Senator Peggy Lehner and asked her if she has consulted with Mr. Bledsoe about the potential of a conflict of interest.  Unfortunately, Senator Lehner refused to comment to me either on this question or to 3rd Rail Politics in general. 


            3rd Rail Politics has written extensively about Sen. Lehner, and the various allegations of conflicts of interest that exist with her, her relationship with The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and her sister.  We write about this because she has been very passionate about her stated goal of advocating for accountability in education, and what is fair for education must be fair for Sen. Lehner, in our view. Accountability does go both ways.