The rainmaker of Wright State
Behind the scenes, the former head of the Dayton Development Coalition has billed Wright State University millions and promised nine-figure returns.
Wright State University has quietly paid nearly $2 million since 2009 — almost $1 million billed just last year — to former Dayton Development Coalition CEO Ron Wine’s consulting firm as part of an effort to attract tens of millions of dollars in government funding and contracts.
A new agreement with WSU, signed in May, allows Wine’s firm to bill the university up to $1 million a year through mid-2019.
University officials defend the spending and say it has brought huge dividends. But, the relationship between Wine and Wright State, a public university, has been closely guarded. Until last month, the university would only reveal piecemeal and highly redacted documents about Wine’s agreement with WSU, which this newspaper began requesting in 2013.
Until now, it had never come to light how much Wright State had paid Wine.
But recently obtained university records show a payment arrangement that grew steadily from $6,000 a month in 2009 to up to $84,000 a month in the current contract.
Wine has billed Wright State $1,995,570 since 2009, the documents show.
Under his current contract, Wine’s firm — Ron Wine Consulting Group — is expected to garner at least $10 million in state funding each year for the next two years, score $140 million in federal contracts over the next three years and help the school sustain $100 million in annual research by mid-2018.
But an I-Team investigation found the university has at times had loose oversight over Wine’s company, which is based out of his Washington Twp. home and lists an apparently outdated phone number on contracts. Wright State could produce no contract from the year 2014, when Wine’s firm billed the school $957,000.
Wine did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Wright State President David Hopkins said in an interview that Wine’s work has already netted more than $100 million in state and federal funds — leading to hundreds of area jobs — and is instrumental in elevating WSU to becoming a top research school.
“His consulting firm has been unbelievably successful in helping us shift the paradigm and helping us get the impact that we desired, not only for the region but now we’re positioned to do it for the whole state,” Hopkins said.
Greg Lawson, policy director of the conservative Buckeye Institute, said big-money contracts with consultants, while common at public institutions, can be costly for taxpayers.
“As long as these opportunities exist, it is rational to hire people to facilitate an entity getting their piece of the pie," he said.
“If the consultants get those dollars, it is a good return on investment from Wright State’s — or any other entities’ — perspective, though probably not from the overall taxpayers’ perspective.”
The amount Ron Wine Research Group invoiced Wright State comes from a tally done in June by staff at Wright State and obtained using Ohio’s public records laws. It comes with this footnote: “There are few formal documents with Ron Wine. The data has been assimilated from observations, assumptions and verbal conversations.”
Records that are available show that Wine was called on to help WSU structure its research institute and identify funds in the state budget, state Third Frontier Program, Dayton Development Coalition federal budget process and Air Force Research Lab contracting process.
He helped establish funding from the Dayton-Montgomery County Port Authority — which Wine helped create a decade before — and obtain government funds for the Dayton Regional STEM School, the records show. And he wooed contacts at the Air Force Research Labs, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other federal agencies to identify funding opportunities.
A review of Hopkins’ calendar, obtained by this newspaper, illustrates Wine’s access to Wright State’s president. The morning after the governor signed Ohio’s two-year state budget — which provided an unprecedented $20 million to Wright State to establish a statewide research network — WSU’s president made three phone calls: to Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, state Sen. Chris Widener (number two man in the Senate), and Wine.
Leading up to the budget bill, Wine met numerous times with Hopkins, university staff and lobbyists, and key state lawmakers to talk about issues including “state budget priorities,” the calendar shows. This includes Widener, R-Springfield; state Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City; Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro; Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering; and state Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek.
Wine, Widener, Hopkins and others also met May 12 at the office of Senate President Keith Faber.
Widener and Perales were key players in carving out the $25 million for the research network — $20 million went directly to the university — that is designed to grab a portion of the $7 billion in defense spending awarded annually by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Wine is expected to keep the money flowing. His current contract tasks him with obtaining $20 million from the state budget over the next two years and $20 million, $40 million and $80 million from the federal government in the next three years.
Although Wine has worked with state lawmakers to secure dollars for Wright State, he is not a registered lobbyist, according to state records, and hasn’t been since 2010.
The Ohio Joint Legislative Inspector General handbook includes a three-part test to determine whether someone needs to register as a lobbyist, which would bring more scrutiny. One, they must be compensated. Two, they must directly communicate with lawmakers, their aides or members of the administration. And three, lobbying must comprise more than 5 percent of their workload if they are lobbying the General Assembly, or 25 percent if they are lobbying the executive branch.
Hopkins said: “He’s not a lobbyist. We don’t use him as a lobbyist.”
Wright State employs a team of registered lobbyists. On their payroll, the university has former state Rep. Bob Hickey, who was paid $150,733 last year, according to university payroll records.
The university also has contracted this year with former Ohio GOP chairman Kevin DeWine, former state Sen. Jeff Jacobson, and political strategist Lori Kershner (wife of Dayton Chamber of Commerce Vice President Chris Kershner).
Jacobson’s contract is for $5,000 per month, plus expenses. Wright State is one of his seven clients, according to state records.
Kershner’s contract with WSU, which expired in June, agreed to pay her $7,500 a month plus expenses for tasks including “matching existing priorities for funding from the state of Ohio (and) developing comprehensive strategy for enhancement for State Capital Budget and State Operating Budget funding for the university.”
The amount of money the university spends on consultants has long been a point of concern for the faculty union.
“You hire people to attract outside funding and to manage things like the Wright State Research Institute, then you hire outside consultants to do a chunk of the work that presumably the people you hired were supposed to be doing,” said Martin Kich, an English professor and president of the Wright State branch of the American Association of University Professors.
Hopkins said Wine is the university’s “chief strategist” in the realm of economic development and connects the university with contacts in the Air Force, private industry and state and federal government.
He said the contract saves the university money compared to the what it would have cost Wright State to staff a department of strategic planning and economic development.
“It’s a tremendous success story,” Hopkins said.
That story starts in 2005, he says, when a round of U.S. military base closures relocated major research functions focused on human performance to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Soon after, Hopkins said, state officials began leaning on universities to be more plugged into their local economies.
“In 2005 what we knew was we had this billion-dollar enterprise sitting right next to us here and a very small percentage of those research dollars were staying in the state of Ohio,” Hopkins said.
“So we said let’s go for it. Let’s see if we can build capacity and be competitive to keep more of those human performance research dollars right here in the region, grow jobs, grow the economy. And we didn’t really know how to go about doing that.”
Wine, who helped create the Dayton Development Coalition in 1994 and led the coalition as CEO until 2004, entered into a contract with Wright State in 2009, for $6,000 a month.
He worked with the newly created Wright State Research Institute to find projects that would appeal to Air Force officials. A statement of work from November 2009 showed that he helped devise the legal structure of WSRI, and helped identify projects that could be funded through state and federal programs.
Hopkins said one of Wine’s achievements was the creation of the Alliance for Human Effectiveness and Advancement (AHEAD), a spinoff of WSRI focused on the type of human systems research headquartered at Wright-Patterson.
AHEAD secured millions from the state, and that money was used to get millions more in Air Force Research Lab contracts, according to Wright State. It became the test pilot for the $25 million lawmakers poured into university-based research efforts from the budget, re-directing state casino revenues.
The work of Wine and others helped attract $167 million in new research contracts to WSU, Hopkins said, securing private sector investments and hundreds of jobs.
“That strategic thinking of Ron Wine Consulting Group has helped establish that,” Hopkins said.
Scott Amey, a federal contract oversight expert with the national group Project on Government Oversight, said Wine’s goals for the next three years are “lofty” and the university could lose out if he doesn’t deliver. But he said it’s basically a lobbying contract, which are common in universities and often effective.
“In a lot of instances I think it’s who you know rather than what you know and what you’re offering (that wins you contracts),” he said.
Amey said universities have to be careful to maintain oversight over the work done by outside consultants, and make sure it’s in the public’s best interest.
“We have to spend federal taxpayer dollars wisely and if we’re making the decision based on who you know rather than the goods or services offered, then we may be buying goods and services that may not be needed, or may be wasteful,” he said.
Search the documents
The I-Team obtained hundreds of pages of public records to reveal the scope and cost of former Dayton Development Coalition Director Ron Wine's work for Wright State University. A sample of those records is below.
The fact that Wright State couldn’t find a 2014 contract with Wine became an issue earlier this year. (DOCUMENT: Details of payments to Wine)
Former WSRI CEO Ryan Fendley, who signed the 2013 contract with Wine, was fired this year amid suspension during a federal investigation into possible violations of the federal work visa program. The university’s chief general counsel retired amid suspension during the ongoing probe. And still on suspension are former WSU provost Sundaram Narayanan — one of the architects of WSRI — and a former WSRI researcher.
In March Wine and Dennis Andersh, the research institute’s CEO, signed an agreement amending the 2013 contract and extending it retroactively to that point, covering the time when they could produce no contract.
“We think there is a contract somewhere, but with some folks who have departed the university we haven’t been able to find it, so this was a way to clean it up,” Andersh said.
Two months later, a new contract was signed that could continue Wine’s work for the university through mid-2019.
Andersh said Wine’s contract is budgeted for half-a-million dollars this year, though the contract allows his firm to bill up to $1 million a year. The university pays on an hourly rate, and though it can cancel the contract if Wine doesn’t produce on his promises, state law prevents contracts that make payment contingent upon getting money from the state.
Andersh said Wine’s contract has paid for itself.
“From a dollar perspective, we’ve probably gotten well north of $100 million from the feds as well as the state,” he said. “From a strategic perspective, I’ve not seen anybody better in terms of the strategy and how to go after these funds.”
Staff Writer Laura A. Bischoff contributed to this report.