- By Laura A. Bischoff Columbus bureau
Months before Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel announced he was running for the U.S. Senate, he used state money on a $1.8 million TV ad campaign to tout a new investment program for families with special needs children.
Money for the ads, which featured Mandel alongside Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer, ordinarily would have required approval by the Ohio Controlling Board, which oversees big spending items by state offices.
But the spending never went before the board. Instead, Mandel made individual ad purchases that each came in under $50,000 — the threshold triggering scrutiny by the Controlling Board.
Mandel, a Republican who announced in December that he is making a second run against U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in the 2018 election, has long painted himself as an advocate for transparency and fiscal responsibility. But according to one election watchdog, Mandel’s special needs ads may have had a hidden motive: advancing his political ambitions.
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“The fact that Mandel has decided to promote the program through expensive TV ads that star himself may suggest that these ads are less about supporting the program and more about supporting Mandel, who happens to be a candidate for the U.S. Senate,” said Brendan Fischer, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, an organization in Washington, D.C., that advocates for campaign finance disclosure.
Mandel press secretary Chris Berry said there is no connection between the ad and Mandel’s Senate campaign, and no attempt was made to hide details of the outreach campaign, according to Berry.
“To be 100 percent transparent we released all the details at the beginning of this outreach effort to members of the media back in June,” Berry said. At the time, Mandel’s office said it was launching a “public service announcement outreach effort” that would include paid advertising on television, digital and social media in all major Ohio markets.
The STABLE accounts — the program name for savings accounts made possible through the federal Achieving a Better Life Experience Act — allow families with special needs children to sock away funds that can be used for housing, education and disability-related expenses without having the funds count against eligibility for benefits programs such as Social Security Income or Medicaid.
So far, Ohio’s STABLE program has had more than 265,000 visits to the website and 2,257 accounts opened, Berry said.
What other states do
Although the STABLE accounts are available nationally, other state treasurers have taken a different approach toward marketing the program in their states.
O.J. Oleka, chief of staff to Kentucky Treasurer Allison Ball, said Kentucky is marketing the program via advocacy groups that work with people with special needs. Kentucky partnered with Mandel’s office to handle the administration as a way to cut costs, Oleka said.
Illinois has focused on micro-targeting, said Greg Rivara, spokesman for Treasurer Mike Frerichs, who leads a 14-state alliance of states that launched STABLE programs.
“We have not spent any money on advertising,” Rivera said. “Our approach focused on (advocacy) groups in this space and speaking with them directly and getting material distributed through their emails, through their newsletters.”
Rivara said eight of the 14 states have their programs open for enrollment. North Carolina ran some TV ads but the others have not, he said.
Mandel couldn’t appear in the ads if he were the state treasurer in Illinois. State law there prohibits statewide elected officeholders from appearing or using their likenesses in paid advertising, Rivera said.
Aiming for Senate
Mandel ran against Brown in 2012, and is already ramping up for his second attempt at unseating the Ohio Democrat. In fundraising emails to supporters last week, Mandel blasted Brown for announcing opposition to President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, before any hearings have taken place. Mandel also went public with his support for a proposed bill in Ohio that would ban so-called sanctuary cities and hold local elected officials who buck the ban criminally liable for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
In the most recent campaign filing before the Federal Election Commission, Brown reported having $3.18 million on hand compared with $1.4 million for Mandel.
“If you’ve had enough of the liberal agenda, supporting my campaign is the way to show it,” Mandel said in his fundraising email. “Please click here to donate.”
The STABLE ads were filmed before Mandel announced for the Senate and make no mention of his intention to run.
Mandel has used state money before on outreach efforts that some construed as political.
In April 2014 while running for re-election as state treasurer, Mandel held “Tele-Townhall” meetings paid for with state funds. His office hired two vendors, each for $49,500, which meant the contracts did not receive scrutiny from the Controlling Board.
In a legal opinion that was widely criticized by Democrats at the time, Attorney General Mike DeWine said the town halls were allowable under Ohio law as long as Mandel stuck to talking about treasurer’s business and matters of general interest.
Berry argued that the TV ad campaign about the STABLE accounts is a way to educate all Ohioans about an important program that will improve the lives of those with disabilities.
“Nearly everyone knows someone who lives with a disability and by increasing awareness amongst all Ohioans this important message can be spread far and wide,” he said.
Appearing with Mandel and Meyer in the ad is Anne Gerhardt, an 18-year-old Cincinnati woman with Down syndrome. Anne’s father, Chip Gerhardt, helped pass the federal legislation establishing the accounts, and Anne was the first person in America to open a STABLE account.
National Disability Institute senior public policy advisor Chris Rodriguez said he applauds any efforts to bring attention to the program.
As for why Mandel had himself featured in the ad, Berry said it was to put the public at ease that their money would be secure.
“In representing the Ohio Treasury, Treasurer Mandel offers credibility, security and accountability in a space ripe with financial fraud – especially to those who are most vulnerable amongst us,” Berry said. “It is imperative that when individuals and families choose to invest their hard-earned money into STABLE Accounts, they have full faith and trust that their dollars are safe and secure.”
About the STABLE program
STABLE is the program name for accounts made possible by the federal Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, passed in December 2014.
The Ohio budget bill passed in July 2015 authorized Mandel’s office to open and administer the accounts and allocated $2 million a year for administrative and promotional costs.
Roughly the same amount is earmarked for the program in Gov. John Kasich’s two-year budget bill, though promotional costs are now specified in a separate line item and limited to $250,000 a year.
STABLE accounts for someone with a disability documented before age 26 allow for:
* Contributing up to $14,000 a year into the account;Using funds for eligible expenses such as housing, transportation, education, assistive technology.
* Choosing from up to five differerent investment options.
* A major benefit is the funds don’t count against the account owner when determining eligibility for benefits programs such as Social Security Income or Medicaid.
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