Political corruption has been at the forefront of public discourse in this country for the better part of the last decade. Ohioans, and Americans as a whole, are justifiably sick and tired of seeing their elected representatives being bought and paid for by special interest groups and with large wads of cash from corporations, lobbying firms and all manner of seedy factions.

Ohio’s own bout with this corruption has come in the form of the ECOT scandal, a years-long scam that saw Republican officials throughout the state’s government paid off — to the tune of millions of dollars — to allow the online charter school to rob nearly $600 million (you can find out how much from your home school district here) from Ohio’s coffers over nearly two decades. All the while, ECOT failed to appropriately educate students and never even checked to make sure that students were attending class. This was well-known to government officials, who chose to turn a blind eye in favor of campaign checks from ECOT founder Bill Lager.

Zack Space, the Democratic candidate for state auditor, has built his campaign around attacks against this culture of political corruption and more accountability to make sure nothing like the ECOT scandal ever happens again in Ohio under his watch.

“We have a proposal, if elected, that we’re going to go back in time and look at these for-profit management companies, not just with respect to ECOT, but other charter schools as well, in order to figure out just how deep this problem runs, how much money taxpayers have lost and — if we’re able — issue plans for recovery to get this money back,” Space told Plunderbund in an exclusive interview. “Moving forward, we’re going to insure that for-profit management companies are subject to the same scrutiny that public schools are subject to, when it comes to auditing.”

The former Congressman has battled Republican candidate Keith Faber in the general election. That opponent is fitting, given Faber’s massive role in helping the scandal grow and continue unchecked for years.

As a former state representative and state senator during the course of the scandal, Faber received more than $36,000 from Lager and other ECOT-related contributors during his time in office. He also actively worked to delay and prevent votes on legislation that would have provided oversight on ECOT — legislation that he has later taken credit for to paint himself as a watchdog on corruption. Faber’s claims were predictably painted as untrue by fact-checkers but that hasn’t stopped his attempts.

“[Faber] essentially helped freeze consideration of the bill until after recess — you’d have to ask him why he agreed to do it,” Space said. (Author’s note: Faber did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this or other issues) “Not long after that, his caucus received a maxed out check from Bill Lager, which is consistent with everything he’s done in the past. He’s essentially done Bill Lager’s bidding for a long time and he was handsomely rewarded for it with big campaign contributions, both to him personally as well as the caucus he presided over.”

Space believes thoroughly that any and all elected representatives who were complicit in this kind of scam should be disqualified from political office in Ohio. That kind of openness to corruption and negligent attitude towards Ohioans and their tax dollars are awful qualities to have for an auditor.

“I do believe that those who were intimately involved in the scam and who actively were complicit in perpetuating it, should be held accountable for their actions. We all know that Keith Faber received tens of thousands of dollars from Bill Lager and tens of thousands of dollars from the White Hat group and all the while, actively did their bidding to allow the largest political scam in Ohio to go on for years,” Space railed. “As long as nobody was paying attention and as long as though big campaign checks were coming in, Faber and Yost were all too willing to look the other way or, worse yet, actively insert themselves, as Keith Faber did, to forestall legislation designed to fix the problem and promote legislation designed to perpetuate it.”

The Space campaign has articulated a plan, in a conversation with Plunderbund, to recoup the losses from the ECOT scandal and prevent anything of this nature occurring again. Space believes that it was an entirely preventable scheme that could have been stopped quickly by an auditor who actually acted as a watchdog — an “aggressive, proactive” auditor who would have used his or her powers of special audit to address the red flags raised by ECOT (time and time… and time… and time again) and who would treat for-profit charter schools with the same vigilance and attention paid to public schools.

His analysis of ECOT and his plans to end the corruption — the corruption that fueled its rise, allowed its continued existence and that has (thus far) prevented the appropriate punishment for those who concocted the scandal in the first place — are part of Space’s broader political understanding. He sees corruption as a problem that infests much of our political infrastructure and landscape and feels that his plan to drive it out of Ohio as something that resonates with voters across the state.

“I feel confident because I’m very passionate about my message. At its core, my message is that the people of Ohio have rightfully lost faith and confidence in their democracy because they know that it’s been rigged. It’s been rigged by big money, which imposes policy, and it’s been rigged by politicians who engage in gerrymandering to advance their political careers at the expense of all Ohioans,” Space explained. “People understand that this is rigged and they’re ready for someone who’s ready to be honest about what’s happening in our democracy. I think we all have an obligation to question our democracy when it goes astray and I’m questioning it right now. I think most Ohioans agree with me that it’s not too much to expect a government that’s rational, fair and honest in how it conducts itself. This government and how it’s acted over the last eight years is anything but honest, fair and rational.”

Faber has chided Space and claimed that the Democratic candidate would be overstepping his bounds in the role of auditor. Certainly, he would be a sharp contrast from the departing Republican incumbent Dave Yost. Space counters that he would be appropriately using the tools available to him as auditor to combat incredibly serious problems that have raged unchecked for nearly a decade or longer.

“I think the auditor is in a really good and a really unique position to shine a light on the corruptive influence of money on policy. We’ve seen it raise its ugly head in the context of pharmacy benefit managers. We’ve seen the influence of money manifest itself in payday lending laws,” Space continued. “We’ve seen the infiltration of private prisons now and the criminal justice system. We’ve seen it reflected in the state budgetary policy that has cut local government funds after three consecutive budget cycles.”

The aforementioned Yost recently issued a report — likely among the final notable acts of his tenure as auditor — on the way those local government funds have suffered in recent years. They’ve been slashed time and again as Republicans refuse to respect local governments as an essential part of the Ohio political ecosystem and for their huge impact on the daily lives of Ohioans.

However, Space understands these attacks on local government not just as harming municipal activities or things of that nature. It’s part of a broader attack on working class Ohioans by conservatives and moneyed interests, who have plundered the wealth of those groups with regressive sales taxes and other measures in place of a progressive income tax. This is a direct transfer of wealth as the richest Ohioans steal from the poorest or those struggling to make their ends meet.

“Dave Yost issued a report — long overdue, frankly — that over 100 cities around the state are spending more than they’re bringing in. This tells me, and it should tell everybody, that local governments are struggling in this economy, especially given the amount of cuts that they’ve incurred by the state legislature to their local government funding,” Space said. “The state auditor is an important position to raise awareness about what’s happening to these local governments. It’s also important to understand and remember that these local government cuts have been made in order to provide tax benefits or tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit very wealthy Ohioans at the expense of middle-class and poor Ohioans.

“To account for the loss of local government funds, many communities are forced to implement regressive taxes on their residents in place of progressive income taxes in order to fund and cover their reduction. In the end, it amounts to a shift in wealth from poor and middle class Ohioans to the state’s richest citizens. This is in a state where we’re already seeing a rather wide division between those who are very wealthy and everybody else.”

The battle between Space and Faber is one of the clearest in this election cycle, especially among the statewide races.

It represents one candidate who has battled against political corruption as the central tenet of his campaign platform; his opponent has benefitted from that same corruption, advanced it into legislation and filled his campaign coffers with money as a result from it. It features one candidate who understands the way that conservative politics attack and profiteer from the working class in order to allow the wealthiest to grow fat; he faces off against an opponent who aspires to be one of those fat cats and carouses with them in his free time.

The campaign is a stark divide in political ideologies played out in a race that may not receive the national attention or headlines of some others, but represents a fundamental battle that would affect the lives of Ohioans every day whenever one of these two men wins the office.

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