Two middle aged white men shaking hands very close together

Because Gov. John Kasich is playing politics, Tom Noe is rotting in jail. Noe, one of 50,000 inmates in Ohio prisons, holds a unique distinction. He is a political prisoner, kept behind bars to please both political parties. Other prisoners of lesser means and influence remain behind bars, too, also victims of the governor's political motives.

We read about political prisoners all the time in third world, totalitarian and less civilized countries than the United States. Such individuals are put behind bars for a long time on phony or exaggerated charges in a foreign land because they posed a political threat or at least failed to please other countries' political elite.

When we read about political prisoners abroad, we in the United States say "not here." Yet we have political prisoners in Ohio. Tom Noe has been incarcerated for 11 years and is currently locked up in the Marion, Ohio, Correctional Institution after several years in the Hocking Correctional Institute in Nelsonville, Ohio.

Noe, 63 years old, is a senior citizen and at the rate things are going, he will be pushing 70 before he is released.

How could this happen in the Buckeye State, the Battleground State, whose slogan for years was "The Heart of It All," whose residents fancy themselves as quintessential evenhanded Americans? And what can and must be done to free Tom Noe?

Thomas W. Noe was the second child of Larry and Doretta Noe, born on July 19, 1954 in Bowling Green, Ohio, the home of Bowling Green State University (BGSU). He attended BGSU, but left after a short while to begin a 34-year career in the coin business.

Through the coin business he became rich and famous, within the state of Ohio anyway, but later his affection for rare coins – and political influence – made him infamous and an inmate.

After nine years working for others, Tom Noe started his own coin business, Vintage Coins and Collectibles. It was located in Maumee, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, while Tom lived in Waterville, an adjacent suburb.

Tom Noe and his first wife Elizabeth had two children. After that marriage ended, Tom Noe married to Bernadette Restivo, a Toledo attorney, and helped raise her three children by her first marriage. Tom Noe helped raise and educate five children. After Tom Noe was incarcerated in 2006, Bernadette Noe ended the marriage though they remain "friends."

As Tom Noe's coin business grew, so did his political activity in the local Republican Party. It was an uphill struggle in Lucas County, where heavily Democratic Toledo dominated. More productive for Noe was state-level politics where Republicans are more likely to win than Democrats and Presidential politics.

As a business owner, Noe had the right cachet to relate to and befriend other business leaders in the so-called Party of Business, the GOP.

As a generous donor to political campaigns, Noe used the so-called
"Mother's Milk of Politics" to become a confidante of Republican political operatives around the state and, more importantly, the candidates for statewide and legislative offices.

Noe was a genial personality and friendly companion to the political movers and shakers in the Republican Party, and a willing campaign manager and political worker bee, going all out for the Republican team.

Noe was a salesman and a hustler with a smile on his face. He belonged on the political scene.

Republican Governors George Voinovich and Robert Taft, who held Ohio's highest office from 1993 to 2009, appointed Noe to three of the most important and influential offices in the state in return for his tactical support and financial largesse: the Ohio Turnpike Commission, the Ohio Board of Regents, and the board of BGSU.

His political activity reached its apex in 2004 when he was chair in northwest Ohio of the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney Presidential re-election campaign. His wife Bernadette Noe was chair of Lucas County Republican Party, a title Tom Noe had previously held.

Bush-Cheney prevailed in a tight Ohio race in which the Republican ticket outperformed expectations in small and medium-sized counties, such as all the counties in the Northwest Ohio region except Lucas County, and ran up big enough margins in the hinterlands to withstand the John Kerry-John Edwards advantage in Toledo and other Ohio big cities.

However, Noe circumvented the limits on individual donations to the Bush-Cheney campaign by giving money to other people who used the money to pay to attend a $2,000-a-head fund-raiser in Columbus. He was charged with conspiracy, contribution violations and making false statements.

Originally, Noe pled not guilty, but eight months later in May 2006 he changed his plea to guilty and was subsequently sentenced to 27 months in federal prison. In April 2005 a state investigation began that also incarcerated him.

It was revealed by the Toledo Blade and later the Columbus Dispatch that the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation had invested $50 million dollars in a coin investment fund managed by none other than Tom Noe. It was believed that Noe had used his influence with the Republican state administration, whose leaders he had supported financially and for whom he had campaigned, to get the $50 million put in his care.

Three major state forces did in Noe. The first two were former allies.

The first force was Toledo Blade newspaper and its publisher John Robinson Block. Once cordial, Block and Noe had become political rivals and it came to a bitter head when Block supported and endorsed Democrat John Kerry for President while Noe was running the re-election campaign for George W. Bush.

In an ironic twist, history appears to be repeating itself. Another state entity, Ohio State University – whose trustees are appointed by Gov. John Kasich and whose funding depends on his support – has invested $50 million of its endowment money in Drive Capital, a highly speculative venture capital fund. Drive Capital's principal is Mark Kvamme, a big donor to and confidante of Kasich. One could argue that putting $50 million in tech start-ups is every bit as risky as putting $50 million into Noe's coin fund, yet the coverage of it, the questioning of its wisdom, and follow-up reporting on whether the $50 million investment is up or down have been as sparse by the Blade and the Columbus Dispatch as their attention to the Noe coin fund investment was voluminous.

The second force that did in Noe was the Ohio Republican Party and the Toledo area GOP. These folks were once mostly Noe's people. Suddenly, he became a pariah to Ohio Republicans. The Republican officeholders all the way up to the governor that Noe had supported, funded and helped elect and stay in office could not put enough distance between them and Tom Noe and his wife Bernadette. As word spread about the so-called Noe Supper Club, where he reportedly regularly picked up big dinner and drinks tabs for Republican officeholders and influentials in Columbus, his former patrons began to fear for a political scandal that would cost them their jobs. It did as the Democrats won all but one statewide office in 2006. Republicans leaders figured the best way to minimize damage was to see that Noe was prosecuted vigorously and jailed for a long time. Thus, Noe was to be made an example that Republicans would not tolerate law-breaking by their own.

The third force leading to Noe's demise was the Ohio Democratic Party and Toledo area Democrats. Republicans had held the governorship for 16 years and the GOP controlled the state legislature and the Ohio Supreme Court. Democrats needed an example of blatant Republican wrongdoing to turn the tide. It was Tom Noe. So the more coverage of Republican Noe's legal problems and incarceration on federal charges, the better it was for the Democrats.

Shortly after the Democrats were swept into power in November 2006, Tom Noe was found guilty by a jury on 29 counts regarding stealing from the coin fund in Lucas County Common Pleas Court and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The most damning information was that Noe converted $2 million of the coin funds he controlled to his personal use. This apparently overcame the fact that the coin fund investment ultimately returned from $6 million to $13 million more (depending on what estimate you want to believe) than the original $50 million to the state.

Noe filed various state and federal appeals over the years and all failed.

Despite an outpouring of public support for Noe's release, Governor Kasich agreed with the Ohio Parole Board's negative recommendation in October 2015. Noe received a letter from a Kasich aide saying that action was "not warranted at this time." Requests can be made only every two years, so a new one is likely in the near future.

The antagonism toward Noe displayed during the clemency application came from the same three major forces that did him in the first place: the Toledo Blade, Republicans and Democrats.

In a Aug. 23, 2015, editorial, the Blade accused Noe of not expressing public remorse and for not giving a full accounting of what happened. Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates, a Democrat who oversaw Noe's conviction, lashed out at Noe for not taking a plea deal. One would think that the fervently religious so-called "prince of lightness, Republican Kasich would have more forgiveness in his heart. Perhaps Kasich was afraid that freeing Noe would be used against Kasich in his ill-fated quest to gain the GOP presidential nomination.

Tom Noe is 63 years old. He probably is not going to change his personality. His detractors – the likes of John Robinson Block, Julia Bates and John Kasich – need to get over their animosity and do what needs to be done to free Noe while he still has some productive life ahead of him.

Gov. Kasich needs to get in touch with his better angels, the ones he claims to follow in his regular national talk show appearances. He can free Noe with the stroke of a pen.

For an in-depth look at the injustice done to Tom Noe, I strongly recommend a new book titled Coingate: When Law and Fairness Collide, written by historian and author Garrison Walters and available in paperback from Dr. Walters was vice chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents from 1990 to 2007 and interim chancellor from 2006-2007. Dr. Walters lays out in copious detail what happened, why it happened and what should have happened.

Hopefully, someday soon, Tom Noe can read the book as a free man.


John K. Hartman writes about media and politics for the Columbus Free Press. His ColumbusMediaInsider column will return in January.


(Copyright, John K. Hartman, 2017, All Rights Reserved.)

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