Gillmor Drawing Rare Attention

Posted May 16, 2007 at 6:33pm

For 18 years, Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio) has worked on issues of importance to the financial services industry while holding a major stake in a community bank — all with the blessing of the House ethics committee.

But since a hometown newspaper critically examined his recent purchase of a million-dollar home outside of his northeastern Ohio 5th district, his financial holdings have come under closer scrutiny.

The question is whether the newfound attention carries any political risk for Gillmor — especially with the new Democratic majority in the House pledging to keep ethics near the top of its agenda.

Publicly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is keeping mum on Gillmor’s finances. That may have something to do with the fact that he never has won his seat with less than 57 percent of the vote — the figure he got last year — in a district that President Bush carried with 61 percent in 2004.

Gillmor said he is doing nothing out of the ordinary.

“It’s the same as a farmer being on the Agriculture Committee,” he said.

Republicans are confident that he will be re-elected.

But Gillmor still has his critics, and many Republicans in Ohio are finding themselves in an increasingly tenuous political position.

Even before the Congressman told the Toledo Blade that his decision to have Zenith Holding and Trading Corp. retain the title to his new home was “pretty much above-board,” foes of his proposal to bar retailers from receiving industrial loan company charters discreetly reminded the industry of his banking ties by bringing it to the attention of the American Banker, a trade newspaper that queried Gillmor about his situation.

Gillmor returned to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to make sure that his elevation to chairman of Old Fort Bank’s board did not conflict with his new status as ranking member on the Financial Services subcommittee on financial institutions and consumer credit.

He also asked if his stock in Gillmor Financial Services, Old Fort’s holding company, worth $5 million to $25 million, according to his most recent personal financial disclosure report, was problematic.

On April 25 the ethics committee said there was no conflict as long as he did not vote on matters that directly affected his family businesses — a decision that disturbed one government watchdog group.

Democrats won control of Congress in November in part because of voter dissatisfaction with Congress’ perceived lack of ethics and a wave of scandals that mostly involved GOP Members.

As a first order of business the House tightened ethics rules in January, but some watchdog groups say Congress has not gone far enough.

“This certainly appears to be a conflict of interest and I think the fact that it’s been allowed to go on for so long shows how tone deaf Congress has been to these situations,” Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause said about the ethics committee decision regarding Gillmor.

A group of House freshmen, led by Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), a returning Member, has introduced legislation to scrap the ethics committee in favor of an outside ethics panel.

“Given how toxic Congress has become in the minds of Americans, even the appearance of impropriety” is problematic, Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) said at the Wednesday morning news conference attended by 18 freshmen.

Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) conceded that the current ethics manual, regardless of who enforces it, might need revising.

“An outside ethics panel goes hand in hand with an examination of the rules,” he said.

When asked if the independent committee, if installed, should revisit standing decisions by the current committee, Hill said, “I have not given that a great deal of thought but perhaps it is something we need to take a look at.”

But Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) demonstrated the resistance the freshmen likely will encounter and said he does not believe that Gillmor has a conflict of interest.

“People own businesses,” Frank said. “There are lawyers and teachers [in Congress] … conflicts of interest are very specific.”

Rules applying to an industry as a whole are not problematic, he said, unwittingly reciting the ethics committee’s latest letter to Gillmor almost verbatim.

The Gillmor name is well known throughout the small towns that make up the 5th district. His father built up Old Fort, a community bank that now has eight branches, after joining the board in 1942. At the time of his 2005 death at the age of 94, he was still bank chairman.

He owned an eponymous trucking company and the Paul M. Gillmor Co. that operated four large farms.

His son sat on the bank’s board but was probably better known for his 22 years in the state Senate at the time of his 1988 election to Congress.

Recently he upped his private banking activities when he and nine other investors, including his sister, asked the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency if they could establish a new national bank called Panther Community Bank in Florida.

Gillmor also has not shied away from supporting legislation championed by the community banking industry.

Besides co-sponsoring legislation to keep commercial interests, such as Wal-Mart, out of the banking business, he also wants to increase coverage for municipal deposits above the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s $100,000 limit.

Old Fort’s municipal deposits outpace the industry’s average, according to the American Banker.

In 1998, he was the only one of Ohio’s 19 House Members to vote against the Credit Union Membership Access Act, which liberalized the criteria for credit union membership.

Credit unions are anathema to community banking groups.

Gillmor said the Toledo Blade and Wal-Mart are raking up mud for their own purposes.

“All it amounts to is that I bought a house and I paid for the house and the Toledo Blade is trying to make a deal out of it,” he said.

Gillmor explained that the title for his newest house — he owns four — is being held by Zenith Holding and Trading Co., a subsidiary of a prominent Columbus-based law firm, because he is doing “some estate planning.

“I’m just having them hold the title until we decide what we want to do with the [title],” he said.

As for his opposition to commercial companies getting into banking, Gillmor said that is not a conflict of interest.

“That’s not a problem,” he said. “Apparently Wal-Mart was trying to engage in those kinds of dirty tactics. There’s absolutely no problem with owning an interest in a bank and being on the Financial Services Committee.”

Even if Gillmor does find himself on the defensive politically, Republicans are confident that the Congressman will have no trouble winning an 11th term in 2008.

“Gillmor has a history with the people of Ohio’s 5th Congressional district,” said Julie Shutley, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The voters will see through these empty accusations and send him back to Congress next year, just as they have in the past, because of his strong record in representing their views and values.”