A week before former President George W. Bush was to come to Columbus for a fund-raiser in October, 2003, Tom Noe invited Larry Kaczala to meet him for breakfast at the Toledo Club.
Noe, a top fund-raiser for the Bush campaign, had an agenda for his meeting with Mr. Kaczala, who then was the Lucas County auditor and the county government's only Republican officeholder:
The former GOP power broker wanted Mr. Kaczala to help him make illegal contributions to the Bush campaign.
Read: Dems want Noe to address lingering questions
Mr. Kaczala, now a consultant, decided recently to go on the record to explain why he didn't take Noe's money and how Noe betrayed his friends and the Republican Party.
He came forward after the Federal Elections Commission fined several current and former local Republican officeholders for taking Noe's cash and funneling illegal contributions to Mr. Bush.
Noe, in his ambition to join the ranks of the Bush "Pioneers"- an elite group of a fund-raisers who collected more than $100,000 each for the former president's 2004 re-election campaign - had similar meetings as he actively recruited friends, political allies, public officeholders, lobbyists, and others to join his network of illegal "conduits."
In September, 2006, Noe pleaded guilty to using 24 conduits to make $45,500 in illegalcontributions to the Bush campaign, landing him in federal prison for nearly two years.
The conduits - a list that included Toledo Councilman Betty Shultz, former Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber, former state Rep. Sally Perz, and former Toledo Mayor Donna Owens - never faced jail time for their involvement, although some were convicted of misdemeanors and were punished by the Federal Election Commission with hefty fines.
Mr. Kaczala, though, was not charged because there was no evidence that he accepted Noe's money.
In an interview with The Blade, Mr. Kaczala explained how Noe asked him to attend the Bush fund-raiser at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Columbus on Oct. 30, 2003, by convincing him that it would be good for his upcoming congressional campaign.
Mr. Kaczala said he grudgingly agreed to pay $4,000 for tickets for himself and his wife.
But later in the conversation, Mr. Kaczala said, Noe jokingly asked if he owed the auditor's wife, Gina, $3,900.
"I said, 'I'm quite sure you don't, Tom. Let's move on," Mr. Kaczala recalled, adding that as a politician, it wasn't uncommon to have people ask for favors in jest. "You sort of laugh it off and say, 'That's funny.' I didn't think anything about it."
'I was stunned'
Mr. Kaczala, in his interview with The Blade, said he didn't give much thought to the breakfast conversation until 2005, when federal investigators told him they were probing Noe's political contributions as part of a wide-ranging state and federal investigation.
Noe was later sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for making illegal campaign contributions to the former president.
Separately, Noe, the former chairman of the Ohio Board of Regents and Ohio Turnpike Commission, is serving 18 years in state prison for stealing more than $13 million from a $50 million rare-coin fund he managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.
The scandal surrounding Noe and the bureau - kicked off by a series of stories in The Blade beginning in April, 2005 - led to nearly 20 criminal convictions, including that of former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft on ethics charges.
As FBI agents looked into Noe's conduit scheme, they interviewed Mr. Kaczala and his wife at the auditor's office in Toledo. In the interview, Mr. Kaczala learned Noe's check register reflected a $3,900 check payable to Gina Kaczala on the date of the Toledo Club breakfast.
The agents, Mr. Kaczala said, told him that the check was never cashed.
"I was at a loss for words," Mr. Kaczala said. "I was stunned."
He added, "He wasn't just going to get me in trouble, but he was going to get us both in trouble."
Donations or payback?
Joe Kidd, a former director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, a former rival of Mr. Kaczala and one of the 24 Noe conduits, said Mr. Kaczala's recent recollections clash with statements he made when the investigation became public.
In April, 2005, for example, Mr. Kaczala dismissed the federal investigation publicly, saying "it just doesn't make any sense."
"This investigation stems from a rumor that's a year old, that Noe gave a Lucas County official money to donate to the presidential campaign," Mr. Kaczala told WTOL-TV, Channel 11.
"But the money was actually a loan used to renovate a family business. This probe is happening now because 2004 campaign finance reports are being audited."
Mr. Kidd said, "It stretches all credibility to say that everyone who went to this fund-raiser at the request of Tom Noe got paid back in some form or fashion, but that Larry did not."
Public records do establish that Noe and his wife, Bernadette, contributed a total of $6,000 to Mr. Kaczala's unsuccessful 2004 congressional campaign.
The couple first contributed a total of $4,000 on Sept. 25, 2003, about a month before Tom Noe's breakfast with Mr. Kaczala.
The Noes donated the final $2,000 in June, 2004.
But Mr. Kaczala denied having any discussions with Noe about trading the donation to the Bush-Cheney event for donations to his campaign fund - although he said that he had expected contributions from the Noes, considering their roles with the county party and his attendance at the fund-raiser in Columbus.
"I spent $4,000 on that fund-raiser in Columbus - he better have given me the [contributions]," Mr. Kaczala said.
Mr. Kidd said the Noes' contributions to the Kaczala campaign amount to a payback.
"It just so happened that his payback was through the campaign rather than personally," Mr. Kidd said. "That may have been a wise decision on Larry's part, but I don't think it makes a difference."
Mr. Kaczala's decision to dismiss Noe's overture saved him a great deal of pain.
Documents recently released by the Federal Elections Commission showed the turmoil caused by the conduit scandal derailed political careers and caused embarrassment and financial stress for those identified.
The Noe scandal put Ms. Thurber and her husband, Sam Thurber, in financial jeopardy, according to a response filed with the commission.
"His wife's political career is over," wrote Robert Kelner, an attorney for Mr. Thurber, in 2007.
Mr. Kelner said Mr. Thurber was finding it difficult to attract work in the Toledo area for his recently launched engineering consulting business because of the attention to the scandal, and the Thurbers had taken out a mortgage on their home to finance Ms. Thurber's political campaigns.
"They now have no prospect of recovering any of this money," wrote Mr. Kelner.
Still, the Thurbers were each fined $9,000 for accepting a $3,750 check from Noe.
Ms. Thurber declined to comment for this story.
Councilman Shultz, in her response to the FEC, said her fines, legal fees, and costs related to the investigation cost her $20,000. For her role in the conduit scheme, the FEC fined Ms. Shultz $1,500 because she demonstrated financial hardship. Ms. Schultz declined to comment.
Ms. Owens, in her response to the FEC, explained how both of her parents died in 2003 and how she was in a serious car accident around the time of the Bush-Cheney fund-raiser.
"My interest in politics was minimal," wrote Ms. Owens, who claimed she was duped by Noe. She was fined $9,000 by the FEC after receiving $1,900 from Noe. Ms. Owens did not return a message seeking comment for this story.
Ms. Perz was fined $7,000.
Sense of betrayal
In their FEC responses, many of the conduits explained that they didn't know they were breaking the law accepting money from Noe.
David Freel, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission and a member of the task force that investigated Noe, said some of the conduits, especially the ones who held public office, should have known better.
"The commission believed they knew what they were doing and that they knew in their various public capacities that these donations should have been handled in a different way and should have been transparent," Mr. Freel said.
Of the 24 conduits, only four - Ms. Owens, Ms. Perz, Ms. Shultz, and Ms. Thurber - were convicted of state-level crimes.
The four women were convicted on ethics violations for failing to report the money they received from Noe on their state ethics filings, a requirement of public officials in Ohio.
Considering how the scandal affected the Noe conduits, many of whom cooperated with federal investigators under agreements that they wouldn't be prosecuted, Mr. Kaczala acknowledged that he is fortunate he didn't join in Noe's scheme.
"Thank God I knew better [than to take the money]," Mr. Kaczala said.
In 2006, Mr. Kaczala lost his re-election bid for county auditor as Republicans surrendered their grip on the state amid the turmoil caused by the Noe scandal.
"I hold them responsible," Mr. Kaczala said. "They betrayed everybody."