Records: DeWine close with anti-abortion group

Posted at 12:17 PM, Feb 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-04 12:26:15-05

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio's top law enforcer is in close contact with the anti-abortion group Ohio Right to Life, whose president sent a text message complimenting the press coverage after investigative findings were released against Planned Parenthood, state records show.

The nature of the close relationship between Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine and lobbyist Mike Gonidakis, which concerns good-government activists, emerged from emails and text messages that The Associated Press obtained through a public records request.

"The media saturation is incredible," Gonidakis said in a text to DeWine's communications chief, Lisa Hackley, about an hour after DeWine announced that Planned Parenthood had disposed of fetal remains in landfills on Feb. 11. After an exchange about various news articles and media interviews he and DeWine were giving, Gonidakis asked Hackley to get him copies of DeWine's national interviews "so we can send them to our people."

DeWine is not the only statewide officeholder with whom Gonidakis is in close touch. An AP review last year found he communicates regularly with top advisers to Republican Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 presidential candidate. His group played a role in crafting language added to Ohio's 2013 budget that placed new restrictions on Ohio abortion providers, the investigation found.

Gonidakis said it's his job to be in touch with statewide officeholders and lawmakers who share his cause - and "I'm not going to apologize for who my friends are."

"Being pro-life and working to help support them along the way is my responsibility, I would argue, as president of Ohio Right to Life," he said. "When I'm fortunate enough to be able to communicate with these men and women, I take advantage of it."

Records show DeWine and Gonidakis at times sharing direct emails. DeWine on two occasions congratulated Gonidakis - with a "Good job!" and a "Great job!" - after the anti-abortion leader sent him a link to a media spot in which he was mentioned. After three people were killed in a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Gonidakis shared his talking points with a local newspaper and welcomed DeWine to borrow them.

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause, a progressive government watchdog group, said it's particularly important in "a time period of high volatility" for DeWine to maintain a distance - even from groups whose causes he openly supports - to prevent the appearance that he's using the government to go after his political enemies.

"A government official has to draw some pretty clear lines between those who are trying to influence the process and the money that's spent by the public and decisions that are in the public benefit," she said.

DeWine announced an investigation in mid-July after anti-abortion activists began releasing undercover videos they said showed Planned Parenthood personnel negotiating the sale of fetal organs.

Spokesman Dan Tierney said Right to Life was among many groups concerned by the videos, but they didn't prompt the probe. Planned Parenthood has since been cleared of the fetal organ allegations by several states, including Ohio, and two activists have been indicted and are fighting the charges.

"Obviously, the attorney general and Mike (Gonidakis) have known each other for many years, and obviously they do care about a lot of the same issues," Tierney said. "As is evidenced by the records request, it's certainly not an uncommon occurrence (for the two to communicate)."

The records request turned up no evidence that DeWine's office had shared its Planned Parenthood report with Gonidakis in advance.

That makes it difficult to explain how Ohio Right to Life issued such a detailed response to the findings just five minutes after they were announced. Right to Life's news release contained reaction quotes, a citation for the section of Ohio law that Planned Parenthood allegedly may have violated and an update on legislation already in the works to address a fetal remains issue that to most of the state was brand new. It would be about two hours before Planned Parenthood issued its response.

Gonidakis said there is no coordination between his group and the attorney general - which he said would be both improper and illegal.

"As a lawyer and as a former deputy attorney general, you would never, ever get involved with an investigation regardless of what the issue is because you could damage the investigation," he said. "So I had zero desire whatsoever to be involved with any of that."

DeWine's office shared its findings with two members of the Kasich administration - his health director and chief legal counsel - a few minutes in advance. Gonidakis couldn't recall whether either of those offices copied him, but his recollection was he got news of the findings "when everyone else did."