After 12 years in the legislature, Kevin Coughlin faces a criminal probe and allegations of extra-marital affairs.
By James Renner
Author’s note: This was my last story for Scene as a staff reporter. After it was approved by the editor and publisher, it was spiked by the CEO, who, like Coughlin, is a Republican. I told him he didn’t know how to run a paper (among other things) and was fired. I then sued for wrongful termination. I’m sharing it now, as Coughlin considers a run for Ohio’s 13th Congressional District, currently held by a Democrat.
State Senator Kevin Coughlin is the father of two adorable girls whom he showcases on his campaign website and literature. He sits on the board of directors at a camp for seriously ill children, and is a past “Advocate of the Year” for the American Cancer Society. He looks like a Scoutmaster, with his thick hair and ready smile, the type of guy you trust innately. This is the Kevin Coughlin many voters know, a handsome young conservative. This image has served him well through more than 12 years in public office — he’s never lost a race — and last month he announced his intention to run for governor in 2010.
But some paint a much different picture of Coughlin — that of a behind-the-scenes schemer and hypocrite.
Last month two detectives visited the Summit County Board of Elections as part of an investigation into Coughlin. At issue is whether Coughlin illegally altered petitions that were circulated when his faction of the county Republican party tried to orchestrate a coup against longtime boss Alex Arshinkoff. Coughlin’s vague denials at a board hearing in January failed to put the matter to rest, and criminal charges are not out of the question.
Another accusation, not involving allegations of criminal behavior but potentially more damaging to his reputation, involves an extramarital affair. Sources say that during the summer of 2004, perhaps longer, he carried on a relationship with a younger woman. At the time she was a 24-year-old employee of the University of Akron, an attractive brunette who had worked on Coughlin’s campaign for State Senate. He was the 34-year-old, married, handsome rising star of the Summit County GOP — smart and ambitious, but also prone to blowing off campaign appointments to spend time with his girlfriend.
Five years later, as he attempts to lead a faction of “New Republicans” away from the pack, this affair is coming back to haunt him. Coughlin claims that anonymous tips that Scene has investigated have come from Arshinkoff’s camp. It’s true that there is no love lost between the two; Coughlin even told Scene that Arshinkoff once hit on him, an accusation that Arshinkoff vehemently denies. Otherwise, however, Arshinkoff declined to comment about his rival.
Coughlin’s political career began in 1996 when, as a first-time candidate at the age 26, he won a four-way Republican primary for the Cuyahoga Falls’ state representative seat being vacated by long-time incumbent Democrat Wayne Jones. Though he had little more than a masters in Public Administration under his belt, Coughlin had timing on his side; nationally, Republicans were ascendant, thanks to Newt Gingrich, and Coughlin’s name was recognized in Summit County, thanks to Stow Mayor Donald Coughlin (who’s actually not related and pronounces it differently). Defying the odds, Coughlin won.
In Columbus, one of his first moves was to close loopholes that had helped some men avoid domestic violence charges, which won him immediate bipartisan support from constituents. But before long he would become known for more predictably conservative positions, a hard-nosed political style and a penchant for secrecy.
When he fought to maintain the Republican hold on the 46th District seat in 1998, Coughlin refused to sign an ethics pledge that others had embraced; he disagreed with requests to provide campaign finance statements on the Internet. In 1999, he joined 50-some other members of the House in voting to exempt themselves from a new public records law that required all candidates for state office to submit campaign finance reports electronically.
That same year he sponsored House Bill 305, which would have allowed patients to be treated by physical therapists without first getting a prescription. When reporters learned that his wife was a practicing physical therapist, he attacked the media for making a big deal out of the appearance of impropriety.
He was elected to the State Senate in 2001. In ’03, a Plain Dealer editorial scolded him for chairing a Senate committee that met in secret to discuss plans to bring slot machines to Ohio.
Over time, Coughlin showed a greater willingness to brandish his status as an elected official to get his way. In 2005, he wrote a letter to Time Warner Cable suggesting the company send money to a campaign that was fighting an elections-reform effort. At the time, Coughlin also sat on the Senate committee that wrote regulatory policy for Time Warner Cable.
When school officials kicked his campaigners out of a Cuyahoga Falls high school football game in 2006, Coughlin shot off an obliquely threatening e-mail to the school board: “As a matter of policy, it is unwise to target a member of the legislature for such an action,” he warned. “I take little offense to it, but a legislator of lesser temperament may have carried that with him when considering policies impacting the Falls schools.”
He used the legislature as a weapon against Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Robart, too. After Robart supported Alex Arshinkoff during Coughlin’s very public battle to unseat the GOP boss in 2007, Coughlin tried to pass a bill that would make it impossible for Robart to create a mayor’s court in his town.
There are two Kevin Coughlins, some say: The ambitious, idealistic reformer who went to Columbus and the jaded, selfish man who came back.
“At first, he was good, he was fun to hang out with,” says one former staffer. “But then he changed.”
“Kevin and I have had a long relationship,” says former state representative Jim Trakas. “He’s hardworking. Motivated. He tries hard to be a good, effective legislator, but … Kevin is a complex guy. He’s burned a lot of bridges over the years. He’ll have a tough time getting the support he needs now, to run for governor.”
In 2004, Coughlin voted for a same-sex marriage ban that also prohibited domestic partners from receiving state benefits through their lover’s employer. But allegations about his own behavior call into question his commitment to the sanctity of matrimony.
In October, Scene received an anonymous e-mail claiming Coughlin had an affair with a campaign worker. “This individual consistently portrays himself in the public as the arbiter of family values,” the e-mailer wrote. The tipster stopped short of naming the alleged mistress, but identified her former roommate and the roommate’s parents.
The roommate confirms the affair. The roommate says that Coughlin and the young woman (we’ll call her Paramour, a term borrowed from Coughlin’s lawyer) met when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Akron and Coughlin was her instructor.
By the summer of 2004, Coughlin was spending a lot of time at Paramour’s apartment at the Village Green complex in Akron, says the roommate. Sometimes, Coughlin and Paramour disappeared into a bedroom; the roommate could hear them having sex. Paramour also allegedly shared hotel rooms with Coughlin on trips to Columbus, too. Other times, he sprung for a room at the Cuyahoga Falls Sheraton.
At least two neighbors at Village Green noticed Coughlin’s SUV, with personalized plates, parked in the apartment’s lot for hours at a time. Some recognized him.
“He was clearly out of his element,” says Nate Longstreth, who lived with his girlfriend in the apartment that faced Paramour’s. “I saw him walk in one time wearing this pastel polo shirt and khakis. He came alone. [Paramour] let him in. Later, I asked [the roommate] what was going on and she told me, ‘Yeah, that’s Kevin Coughlin. He’s banging my roommate.’ I told the roommate to go public with it, but she didn’t want to hurt her friend.”
When Coughlin learned of Scene’s investigation in October 2008, he immediately threatened to sue. “This is based, I presume, on the same rumors that Alex Arshinkoff has spread down here for four years,” he said in a voice mail for Scene publisher Matt Fabyan. “He’s been peddling this story ever since he hit on me.” He also sent this reporter an e-mail from his private account, pleading his case: “In the immortal words of Paul Newman, why would I go out for hamburger, when I have filet mignon at home?”
The next day, Scene received an e-mail from Ron Kopp of the Akron law firm Roetzel & Andress. “The allegation is false and would be defamatory if published,” the letter stated. “If you have contacted any alleged paramour, the Senator is confident that that person would deny any unseemly relationship — since none existed.”
On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Coughlin’s “New Republicans” met at a hotel in Fairlawn to discuss their agenda for the future of Summit County politics. It was there that Scene got the opportunity to speak directly to Coughlin about the affair.
“I don’t have any extra-marital affair going on,” Coughlin said, using the present tense to address a question about 2004. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is bizarre.”
Coughlin admitted to speaking with Paramour’s roommate, though, after she had talked to Scene. He wouldn’t say what the conversation had been about.
When asked why his SUV may have been parked outside the apartment at odd hours, Coughlin said, “If you’re talking about the apartments over on West Market, I’ve had a staffer that lived there before and I’ve done drop-offs and pick-ups for the Bush campaign back in ’04. That’s the only time I’ve ever been there.” Some of the drop-offs may have been quite late at night, he added. “Well, during the campaign, I might have dropped someone off there at 1 a.m. but generally, no, I’ve never gone in there.
“You can poke around all you want,” he said finally. “There’s no paramour out there, there’s nothing tawdry. I have nothing to hide. I have a good strong marriage and that’s not going to change.”
At the end of the meeting, several Republicans took this reporter’s card. The next day, someone sent more information about Paramour, via Facebook. She lives in an apartment complex in Brimfield.
On January 23, she answered her door in a white bathrobe, her hair dry, her face made-up. She was instantly recognizable from the picture the University of Akron had published in an in-house publication, but when asked, she denied being herself: “No, I’m sorry, I don’t know when she’ll be back.” When I said I knew who she was, she said, “Now is not a good time for me.”
Asked about the affair, she would only say, “There’s nothing to talk about. There’s nothing to discuss.” When asked if Coughlin was inside, she shut the door.
I then parked on the street and waited. About 10 minutes later, she drove out of the complex, talking animatedly on her cell phone. I followed, and she drove to the Brimfield Police Department.
The report she filed verified her identity. The report states that she told the police chief that she had felt “threatened” because the reporter was “asking her personal questions that she did not feel comfortable answering.”
After she left, I entered the police station to give my version. Chief David Blough told me that no laws had been broken, but asked that I not follow the woman back to the apartment. I didn’t, and have not been back since.
Another letter from Coughlin’s attorney arrived shortly after this. Coughlin’s version of events, which could only have been relayed by Paramour, gives a more salacious account of the episode in Brimfield: “The police held the reporter and told him not to set foot in her condo community or follow her again or he would be arrested.” Not true.
The lawyer warned that a lawsuit was probably going to be filed even if Scene did not publish a story, adding, “Prompt cessation of the harassing conduct may cause us to reassess.”
Coughlin’s campaign finance reports show that Paramour was paid for consulting work on his Senate campaign, in 2002. Even though he had two other full-time staffers, Mike Chadsey and Jeff Lehner, she was the only one paid directly by his campaign — $6,000.
Chadsey sometimes met Paramour and Coughlin at the Cuyahoga Falls Sheraton on days that Ohio State’s football team played at home. They each drove separately to the hotel but then traveled together to Columbus and back to the Sheraton. Records show that Coughlin paid for Ohio State football season tickets with money from his campaign fund. When Paramour damaged her car, Coughlin paid for the repairs with campaign money, too — a legitimate expense, he says, claiming the damage occurred while she was dropping of campaign literature. But he refused to provide receipts.
At the same time, Coughlin was expensing hotel rooms at the Sheraton for “staff accommodations.” A staffer who worked on his campaign says all staff was local and nobody needed a room. “I’ve been afraid of getting a call like this,” he said. “I think it’s slimy, what he did. I think it’s crazy a married adult man would be so open around town with a young woman.”
There were times when their relationship impacted his ability to campaign, the staffer said. During a day set aside to campaign in Copley, Coughlin instead spent the afternoon at Wolfcreek Winery with Paramour. When asked where he’d been, he told a fellow political candidate that he’d been “canoodling” with Paramour.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” says one former state representative. “And with Kevin, there’s so much smoke, there must be a towering inferno somewhere inside.”
Paramour may not have been the only one. Former Coughlin staffers say that he let a legislative aide go after his wife became jealous. Coughlin denies this. According to two fellow state representatives who spoke on background, Coughlin once got into a public shouting match with Representative Ray Miller outside a committee room at the statehouse over their mutual attraction for a Democratic Caucus staffer.
Scene obtained Coughlin’s phone records through the State Senate. The documents show that in 2004, he frequently called both his wife and Paramour’s cell phone before leaving the office at the end of the work day. For example, on December 8, 2004, at 4:57 p.m., Coughlin called home twice, then Paramour’s cell phone five times, then home again for seven minutes, then four more calls to Paramour’s cell.
After she was first contacted by Scene, the roommate informed Coughlin that she had been interviewed and what she had said. She would not elaborate on what they’d discussed, but noted, “I’m afraid of what might happen to me if you write about this.” She explained that in late 2004 or early ’05, she and Paramour bumped into Coughlin and a friend of his at Brubakers in Montrose. The roommate says she joked openly about the affair. Coughlin called her later, she says, and told her she had “a big mouth” and that his friend had warned him that “the only way to shut her up is a bullet in the head.”
Coughlin’s friend confirmed to Scene that the chance meeting occurred, but denied saying anything threatening about the roommate.
Coughlin’s harassment of possible sources continued into March. Last week, he sent an e-mail from his private account to a source that said: “The tabloid Scene has been trying to put together a hatchet job story on me for several weeks…” He also issues a thinly veiled threat to those who might talk to the paper: “Anticipating legal action, [my attorney] has repeatedly reminded Scene magazine of it’s [sic] obligations to save all records that will help lead us back to the source of the defamatory comments and allegations.”
Paramour got a job working as the executive assistant for Republican Summit County Engineer Greg Bachman in December 2004, but Bachman insists she was not hired as a favor to Coughlin. However, he admits that Coughlin personally called him to recommend her for the $38,000 a year job. “She was very good at administrative things like Excel and managing databases,” he says.
Oddly, her first performance review, in 2005, specifically notes, “Needs to take Excel classes; needs basic understanding of personnel access database.”
By the time she was let go in January, after Bachman lost his bid for re-election, Paramour had become an able liaison of the engineer’s office at City Counsel meetings and in the media. “Whatever I do next, if I can hire anyone, I’ll hire her,” says Bachman.
But allegations of infidelity and cronyism aren’t the most serious threats to Coughlin’s political future. In January, the Summit County Board of Elections sent information to the county sheriff and the county prosecutor suggesting that Coughlin committed a felony when he altered elections petitions in 2007.
When Coughlin made a play to unseat Arshinkoff as chairman of the Summit County GOP that year, a number of his supporters worked as “circulators” to gather signatures for New Republican allies so that they could run for positions on the Republican Central Committee and vote in their own chairman. It was a poorly organized coup against a man many in Akron call “Godfather.” Even before it had failed, Arshinkoff’s supporters were carefully double-checking the legitimacy of the petitions. Coughlin should have anticipated this. But it appears he hurriedly altered some petitions in an effort to keep the documents from being ruled invalid by the Board of Elections, possibly in violation of state law. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if his former roommate hadn’t been the guy whose job it was to review the documents.
Bryan C. Williams, Deputy Director of the Summit County BOE, noticed that someone had used a different pen to fill in portions of the petitions such as “number of signatures,” “party affiliation” and “precinct.” He recognized the handwriting as Coughlin’s — they had shared a hotel room in Columbus from 1997 through 2003, when Williams was working in the legislature (however, Coughlin often made excuses to stay extra nights at the hotel, alone.)
At issue is whether Coughlin’s circulators were present when he altered the petitions. If they were not, what he did was illegal.
In order to get to the bottom of this, the BOE held hearings on January 13, at which Coughlin’s circulators were ordered to appear by subpoena. Two of his circulators were suddenly stricken with bad memory and could not recall specifics. Another pleaded the Fifth (an odd choice, considering that there is no scenario in which they, themselves, broke any law; or perhaps not so odd, considering that this particular circulator was represented by Coughlin’s attorney). Two others said that they did not witness the alterations.
Coughlin was very careful to not admit to altering the petitions circulated by Jones and Davenport.
Republican BOE chairman Jack Morrison Jr.: “Well, did you fill out the word ‘Republican’ on that circulator statement?”
Coughlin: “I can’t say that I did.”
Morrison: “You don’t recognize that as your handwriting?”
Coughlin: “It may be, but I’m not going to stand here under oath and tell you that I did.”
Republican BOE member Brian K. Daley doesn’t believe much, if any, of Coughlin’s testimony. “Look, if the circulators were present, why didn’t he just have them fill it out?”
“I believe what he did was illegal,” says Williams. “Those petitions are akin to affidavits. To change any information on the documents without their prior knowledge or consent, I believe, is illegal.” A similar case that Williams recently investigated led to a felony indictment that was eventually pled down to a misdemeanor.
He will say this, though, “In the eight years we roomed together, I never saw any indication he was having an affair.”
That may prove to be small consolation if the prosecutor chooses to present the case to a Grand Jury.
What impact this probe — and his alleged affairs — may have on his bid for governor remain to be seen. But if Summit County politics is an indication, Coughlin is quickly running out of allies. The Rubber City, like state politics, is full of bridges, and Coughlin has done a good job of burning most of them.