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Former Columbus Lobbyist Pleads Guilty To Convention Center Bribery Scheme

Former Columbus lobbyist John Raphael
Former Columbus lobbyist John Raphael

Former Columbus City Hall lobbyist John Raphael pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges on Wednesday. Federal investigators allege Raphael accepted bribes from a food vendor in exchange for securing a favorable contract with the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Raphael served on the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority board and operations committee, and as treasurer. In these roles, the complaint reads, Raphael had access to confidential information that he was prohibited from using for “private or personal gain, including by providing confidential information to persons not authorized to receive this information for private gain or advantage."

According to a criminal complaint, filed in December in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Raphael billed clients what he called “success fees," which were, in reality, bribes. The kickback scheme spanned from 2013-2015, during which Raphael received approximately $144,000. 

Raphael faces up to 20 years in prison.

How The Bribery Worked

In 2014, the FCCFA started a competitive bidding process to select a food vendor for the Greater Columbus Convention Center, which it owned and operated. Four unnamed companies entered the bid, which the complaint calls Companies A, B, C and D.

While he sat on the FCCFA board, Raphael allegedly provided confidential information to Company A to help it win a business contract with the FCCFA. The complaint says the company paid Raphael a “monthly non-refundable retainer” of $5,000 and a “success fee” of $40,000 for helping secure a final contract with the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Raphael forwarded Company A information that he did not forward the other three companies. Less than an hour after receiving a draft contract and request for proposal for review as a board member, Raphael forwarded that information to Company A.

In board meetings, Raphael also allegedly proposed changes to the contract that Company A asked him to make – which would shift more costs to taxpayers – while failing to disclose that Company A was his client. One such change to the contract made the FCCFA bear financial responsibility for operating losses at the convention center.

In December 2014, the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority passed a resolution to solidify the contract. The next month, Company A sent its last $40,000 payment to Raphael, and three months it terminated his consulting agreement.

According to past WOSU reporting, Company A may be Centerplate, which had Raphael on its payroll. The GCCC removed Centerplate as its main vendor in 2016 after the bribery scheme came to light, and fired then-convention center manager Rodney Myers after it discovered he was also being paid by Centerplate.

According to the Department of Justice, honest services wire fraud is a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Raphael pleaded guilty to this charge in federal court late Wednesday morning.

In June 2016, Raphael was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of extorting campaign contributions for city officials from red-light-camera vendor Redflex.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.