With a week to go before the special primary election for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, Democratic candidate Shontel Brown may be in hot water.
In April, the Intercept reported that Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilmember, had voted to award millions worth of contracts to companies connected to her romantic partner and campaign donors. Emails we read show that the Ohio state auditor’s office reviewed the allegations in the article and recently referred the matter to the state ethics commission.
Under Ohio law, public officials are prohibited from knowingly authorizing or using their authority or influence “to secure authorization of any public contract in which the public official, a member of the public official’s family, or any of the public official’s business associates has an interest.” Violation of the statute is a felony, and penalties can include prison time.
Brown’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Brown is running in the Democratic primary race against former Ohio state senator and Bernie Sanders surrogate Nina Turner for the open congressional seat. Brown, who has been on the county council since 2015, also serves as chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party and has seen strong support from the national party establishment.
In recent weeks, Brown’s campaign and her efforts to paint Turner as a bad Democrat have benefited from high-profile endorsements from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and House majority whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC).
Brown has also seen strong support from corporate lobbyists and outside groups, most prominently DMFI PAC, a pro-Israel super PAC whose biggest donor is an oil and gas executive and an heir to a massive fossil fuel fortune.
The corporate think tank Third Way, which recently endorsed legislation encouraging more states to cut federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits, entered the Cleveland race last week, dropping $250,000 on digital ads opposing Turner.
In addition, several outside groups have come to Brown’s aid, after polling revealed in early June that Turner was the overwhelming favorite to win the primary. Amid the anti-Turner onslaught by the Democratic establishment, Brown’s campaign released survey numbers last week showing her up 26 points since April and within striking distance of Turner.
But Brown’s corporate-bankrolled, scorched-earth campaign is also earning detractors. On Monday, Walter Stewart, a local city councilman in Cuyahoga County, posted a video saying he was rescinding his endorsement of Brown because of what he called “phony politics,” “big business,” and “tit-for-tat negative campaigning.”
Instead, said Stewart, “We need someone who is going to stick with the issues, and that person is Nina Turner.”
The Intercept reported in April that Brown, who had pledged to recuse herself “as necessary” from contracts involving her partner, Mark Perkins, had used her position as Cuyahoga County commissioner to help steer $17 million in contracts to Perk. Perk was founded with Perkins’s uncle but is now owned by the Cifani family, who have long-established business ties to the Perkins family and who have supported Brown’s campaigns for office.
The Intercept noted that, in February 2017, weeks after approval of one of those contracts for $7 million, Perk hosted a fundraiser for Brown’s reelection campaign.
According to emails provided to us, in April, the Intercept’s story was forwarded to the Ohio attorney general’s office. The following month, an official in the attorney general’s office noted in an email that she discussed the matter with an attorney in the state auditor’s office. “We are both of the opinion that it makes sense for the Auditor’s office to review, and we also believe that this might end up being a case that is referred to [the] Ethics Commission,” the official wrote.
The Intercept’s report was forwarded to the auditor’s office, and, according to a June 2 email from a representative of the office’s Special Investigations Unit, the matter has now been sent to the Ohio Ethics Commission, the state’s official public corruption watchdog, for review.
“The recommendation by the Special Audit Task Force was to refer this matter to the Ohio Ethics Commission for its review and consideration,” noted the email. “The Auditor of State strives to make sure all matters are referred to the agency which has jurisdiction. For this reason, the Auditor of State is referring this matter to the above-mentioned agency.”
Based on the information provided in the email, the person who sent the story to the attorney general’s office and the auditor’s office has no affiliation with the Turner campaign.
A representative of the Ohio Ethics Commissions would not confirm or deny any allegations or investigations, noting that, under state law, the only investigative documents that are made public are settlement agreements, and no such agreements currently exist on the matter in question.