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Columbus Lobbyist Gets 15-Month Prison Sentence

Columbus Lobbyist John Raphael leaves federal court after receiving 15 months in federal prison for his role in a red light camera pay-to-play scandal.

The Columbus lobbyist connected to a pay-to-play scheme was sentenced in federal court Wednesday. 

Columbus lobbyist John Raphael received 15 months in federal prison for extorting thousands of dollars from red light camera company Redflex.

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson also sentenced Raphael to one year of supervised release when he gets out, and he imposed a $5,000 fine.

We tried to talk to Raphael as he left the federal courthouse on Marconi Boulevard, but he declined as he walked toward a black SUV.

“Please talk to my attorneys," he said. "Excuse me."

We did talk to his attorney, and we’ll get to him in a moment.

But first, in a packed courtroom, with several rows of supporters, Raphael made some remarks before he was sentenced.

Recording equipment isn’t allowed in federal court.

Raphael acknowledged he pressured Redflex to make financial contributions or lose its contract with the city of Columbus, and he expressed remorse. Raphael underscored he was never involved in any bribes, not with Redflex, city officials, or anyone else.

He also said he wasn’t "taking one for the team."

Judge Watson took note of that remark - “taking one for the team” -  saying he was curious why Raphael would say that since he was the only defendant in the courtroom.

Raphael’s attorney Michael Miller said he wasn’t sure “what to draw from that remark."

“I think some people feel, the government among them, that he is taking one for the team [and] there’s a lot more out there. I don’t happen to subscribe to that view," Miller said. 

Federal prosecutors have painted Raphael as the mastermind behind the Columbus Redflex pay-to-play scheme. They say he has hampered their case by being uncooperative and "potentially protecting other wrongdoers."

An investigation revealed Redflex paid Raphael more than $70,000 to keep its contract with the city. Raphael took the money and made campaign contributions in his name and in the names of family and friends. It was noted in court those friends and family members didn’t know Raphael had used their names in the scheme. Some of those contributions went to Mayor Andrew Ginther and former Mayor Michael Coleman. Both maintain they were unaware of the source of the contributions.

Judge Watson noted Raphael’s actions called into question the local government’s integrity.  

For all of that, federal prosecutors wanted Raphael to go to prison for more than three years. But Watson said he didn’t think Raphael deserved that sentence. Watson, who said he was shocked by the case’s details, told the court he thinks Raphael was a “willing participant” in the pay-to-play scheme, but not its “author.” He referred to Raphael as a lobbyist who “succumbed to the pressures of power and access.”  

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman said he’s not necessarily disappointed with the sentence.

“Federal prison is no joke. And we’re talking about 15 months in federal prison," he said. "I hope that anybody who is contemplating somewhere in the back of their mind getting into a pay to play scheme and take note of it and think, ‘You know what, I should probably stay on the up-and-up. And I don’t want to end up in federal prison.'”

Raphael attorney Mike Miller said the sentence was fair.

“Obviously, I would’ve liked less, but I’m sure the government, as you know, would’ve wanted more. It’s one of those things where neither of us is totally happy.”

There was no indication either side would appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. They have two weeks to do so.

Raphael, who has surrendered his passport, will find out in 45 days to which prison he will be remanded. Watson recommended it be as close to Central Ohio as possible.

Mandie Trimble is a former reporter for WOSU.