A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Republican Attack Ad Withdrawn, Revised

The NRCC says a Democratic candidate in Ohio was investigated by the FBI. He wasn't. But there was a state criminal probe.


Summary

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) withdrew and revised an ad attacking Charlie Wilson, a Democratic candidate for the House in Ohio. The NRCC removed a reference to an FBI investigation before re-airing the ad.

The ad attacks Wilson for his role in a 1990’s environmental scandal, when he headed a water authority that was fined more than $770,000 for repeatedly dumping untreated wastewater into the Ohio river. A federal administrative law judge also found that the board Wilson headed unlawfully fired the whistle blowing employee who tried to correct the dumping violations.

The original ad was incorrect in one respect – the local FBI office says no formal investigation was opened. However, we find the rest of the ad is substantially true. In fact, the record shows state officials did conduct a criminal investigation of the dumping and referred evidence to a federal prosecutor, who declined to press charges.

Analysis

On April 5 the NRCC aired “Dirty Secrets” across Ohio’s Sixth Congressional District, which is being vacated by Democrat Ted Strickland, who is running for governor. The $100,000 ad buy targets Wilson in an attempt to knock him out as a potential November rival to Republican Charles Blasdel.

Wilson, a state senator, is running as a write-in candidate against two lesser-known Democrats. He failed to produce the 50 signatures required to qualify for the May 2 ballot in time to meet the filing deadline.

NRCC Ad
“Dirty Secrets”

(On Screen: Picture of Charlie Wilson)
Announcer: Charlie Wilson’s record? Dirty secrets. Millions of gallons of raw sewage secretly dumped into the Ohio River …
(On Screen: “Sewage Dumped into Ohio River” Dayton Daily News 1/23/96)
Announcer: …leading to an FBI investigation and a massive fine.
(On Screen: “FBI Joins Probe…” Times Leader 8/5/98)
(On Screen: “Ohio EPA Actively Pursuing Sewage Violators,” Letter to the Editor, Dayton Daily News 3/26/96)
Announcer: An attempted cover-up to save his career, including firing the plant supervisor who refused Wilson’s orders and exposed the dumping.
(On Screen: “I can’t have my future on the line over the sewer authority.” – Charlie Wilson)
(On Screen: “  Whistle Blower Fired by Sewage Plant,” Columbus Dispatch 7/28/00)
Announcer: And Wilson said quote, “I’m gonna take a fall because of this.”
(On Screen: Wilson ‘s image and the text: “I’m gonna take a fall because of this.”)
Announcer: No secret there Charlie.
(On Screen: Charlie Wilson: We just can’t trust him to do what’s right.)
Announcer: The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

No FBI Probe

The ad says that “millions of gallons of raw sewage [were] secretly dumped into the Ohio River, leading to a FBI investigation and a massive fine.”

However, the Cincinnati Division of the FBI says no formal FBI investigation ever took place.letter to the Wilson campaign from Michael Brooks, Chief Division Counsel of the FBI’s Cincinnati Branch, says “a review of Federal Bureau of Investigation Cincinnati Division records failed to disclose any record of an FBI investigation concerning involving [sic] the Eastern Ohio Regional Wastewater Authority.”

It is true as the ad says that the Ohio state Environmental Protection Agency fined EORWA more than $770,000 for multiple violations over a period of eight years – during Wilson’s tenure – including allowing millions of gallons of untreated wastewater to flow into the Ohio River. When that fine was announced Jan. 27, 1997, the Ohio EPA said state officials had conducted a criminal investigation but found insufficient evidence to prosecute anybody. It also said federal prosecutors had passed up the case as well:

Ohio EPA, 1997:  Ohio EPA conducted a criminal investigation of EORWA, but in March 1994 Ohio EPA chose to pursue the case as a civil matter because it didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute criminally. Ohio EPA did present all available evidence to the U.S. attorney, who declined to prosecute the case.

The NRCC said it had relied on an article from the Aug 5, 1998 Times-Ledger newspaper which quotes EORWA Board President James Tekely (Wilson’s successor) as saying the FBI “came down here a few weeks ago on a complaint filed with them. They went over plant logs, but we haven’t heard anything from them since.” Such a casual inquiry by an FBI agent doesn’t constitute a formal investigation, however. The FBI often makes preliminary inquiries before deciding whether or not a full investigation is warranted.

The NRCC said it removed the words “an FBI investigation” from the ad and resumed running it, otherwise unchanged.

A Cover-Up

The ad goes on to state that Wilson attempted a “cover-up to save his career” and fired the plant supervisor who “refused Wilson’s orders and exposed the dumping.”

That is supported by a federal administrative law judge from the US Department of Labor, Daniel Leland, who held 20 days of hearings on the matter.

According to Leland’s summary of the evidence, the EORWA Board of Trustees voted Sept. 21, 1995 to discharge plant superintendent David Charvat after a little more than a year on the job.  The judge said Charvat had repeatedly reported violations to the Ohio EPA and refused calls by Wilson and other board members to stop making such reports. The judge quoted Charvat as saying the Board of Trustees consistently rebuffed his attempts to stop violations and make improvements to the plant. The judge said one board member told Charvat that raising sewage rates might jeopardize Wilson’s political career.

After his termination, Charvat filed suit against the EORWA under the employee protection provisions of the Clean Water Act.  In finding for Charvat, Judge Leland said:

Judge Leland: The Board members were obviously aghast at complainant’s (Charvat’s) whistle-blower letter and were fearful of the effect the disclosure of the environmental violations would have on their reputations and careers. They chose to terminate him, rather than to make the changes necessary to place the plant in compliance with environmental laws.

Leland ordered the EORWA to reinstate Charvat and pay him more than $180,000 in back pay, interest and compensation for “emotional distress and loss of reputation,” plus Charvat’s attorney fees.

The NRCC ad accurately quotes Wilson as saying “I’m gonna take a fall” for the controversy. The quotation is included in a footnote to the decision of the administrative law judge. It came at a meeting at which Wilson and the rest of the board refused to allow Charvat to conduct an investigation and to fire employees responsible for breaking environmental laws. Charvat secretly recorded what was said:

Wilson, July 5, 1995: Dave, this has Pandora’s box written all over it . . . I mean I really can’t believe it. I’m gonna take a fall because of this, and it’s, it’s–I’m pissed, I mean . . . I don’t want to deal with this (expletive), you understand what I mean? I don’t want to do that. I can’t have my future on the line over the sewer authority. I can’t do that. I won’t do it that way.

The judge’s decision also quotes Wilson as saying he “may” have said those things, but was referring to “a barrage of lawsuits” and not to Charvat’s whistleblowing activities.

A Wilson campaign spokesman says Wilson abstained from voting on Charvat’s dismissal. That’s true. However, the judge’s opinion notes that Wilson abstained “because he had testified at the termination hearing.” There is no indication that Wilson objected to the firing. The judge cited testimony that Wilson had earlier threatened to “shoot the messenger” if it became public that the board was being investigated, and also that Wilson had asked Charvat to stop reporting violations or at least tone them down, which Charvat refused to do.

 

Media

Watch NRCC Ad: “Dirty Secrets”

Sources

Chuck Malolepszy, “FBI joins probe of EORWA,” The Times Leader, 5 Aug 1998.

Michael Schuler, “Charlie Wilson Advertisements Pulled,” Wheeling News Register, 11 Apr 2006.

David Hammer, “National republicans replace ads over questioned attacks,” Associated Press, 7 Apr 2006.

David Hammer, “Write-in Candidate brings early national focus to house race,” Associated Press, 9 Mar 2006.