The local Republican Party has long dominated the little-scrutinized Hamilton County Courthouse, making it a bastion of patronage for friends and campaign workers, along with serving as a launching pad for up-and-coming politicians. Clearly, it’s who you know and not how qualified you are that matters in most county offices.
All that would be bad enough, but an incident last month has troubling implications for how justice is meted out in the county.
At the request of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, 12 judges in the Common Pleas Court agreed to hold an administrative (read: closed door) meeting to hear Deters’ request that they terminate an outside law firm used by the county commissioners since September 1997.
That law firm — Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease — has represented the county on issues dealing with building The Banks, a massive redevelopment project along the Ohio River on land between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. The project, expected to cost about $1 billion in public and private dollars, is the Greater Cincinnati region’s largest and highest-profile development and likely will take more than a decade to complete.
About $11 million has been spent for the firm’s services since that time. The money comes from stadium tax proceeds and not the general operating fund.
When the law firm was first used 12 years ago, Republicans filled all three seats on the Hamilton County Commission. Those commissioners believed attorneys with special expertise were needed to handle the complicated matters involved with purchasing the land and cobbling together agreements with the city of Cincinnati. Simply put, they didn’t think the Prosecutor’s Office, filled with novice attorneys who start out making about $35,000 annually, were up to the task.
Also, commissioners felt ill-served by the Prosecutor’s Office when it earlier handled negotiations for the Bengals lease, which gave lavish perks to the team.
In December 2002, when Republicans still held two seats on the county commission, the group passed a resolution making its relationship with the law firm more formal, dubbing it “special counsel.” Resolutions confirming the arrangement have been signed over the years by Deters and filed with the court.
Strangely, Deters had no problem with the law firm’s use for more than a decade, while Republicans controlled the county commission.
Now that Democrats control the commission, however, he’s had a sudden change of mind.
Last month, Deters said the expense wasn’t needed at a time when the county is facing budget deficits. During the past year, some workers were laid off, others furloughed and cuts were made in some county services.
The prosecutor cited a provision in Ohio law (ORC 309.09) that he said allowed any county prosecutor to ask judges to fire the outside firm if the cost exceeded the prosecutor’s salary in any given year. But Deters needs to brush off his copy of the Ohio Revised Code because that’s not what that section states.
The actual text is: “Whenever the board of county commissioners employs an attorney other than the prosecuting attorney of the county, without the authorization of the court of common pleas as provided in section 305.14 of the Revised Code, either for a particular matter or on an annual basis, to represent the board in its official capacity and to advise it on legal matters, the board shall enter upon its journal an order of the board in which the compensation to be paid for the legal services shall be fixed. The compensation shall be paid from the county general fund. The total compensation paid, in any year, by the board for legal services under this division shall not exceed the total annual compensation of the prosecuting attorney for that county.”
First, the commission did have the approval of the Common Pleas Court. Secondly, there’s no provision for terminating the relationship. And lastly, Deters willingly cut his prosecutor’s salary in half by also going into private practice — something that, incidentally, no other prosecutor in a metropolitan area of Ohio does. With a reduced salary of $74,000, the outside firm exceeded the limit.
When Commissioners David Pepper and Todd Portune, two Democrats, objected to Deters’ action, neither he nor the judges would listen. As a result, the commissioners have filed a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court to have it rescinded. Pepper and Portune are serving as attorneys for the county free of charge.
Additionally, the complaint notes that it’s the county commissioners — not the prosecutor or judges — who are accountable to the public for budgeting and overall policy direction of the county.
The situation is stunning: A group of 12 Common Pleas judges acted to sever the attorney-client relationship without notifying either the attorney or the client, neither had representation at the meeting, and they did so without taking even a day to review and consider the prosecutor’s legal basis. It makes most observers wonder how often the judges screw up in their cases and whether the prosecutor wields undue influence.
“It’s an incredibly lawless act,” Pepper says. Although the sole Republican commissioner — Greg Hartmann — voted against filing the complaint, tellingly he wrote to Deters and asked him to settle the dispute; Deters refused.
Courthouse insiders speculate that Deters severed the relationship for two reasons. First, commissioners probably will seek further cuts from his office next year in another round of budget reductions, and Deters wanted to seem like a cost-cutter before that happens.
Also, Deters has long opposed The Banks project in favor of spending the money for law enforcement. By taking over the legal work, he can undermine the project.
If you think that sounds too conspiratorial, consider this: Just this year alone, the outside firm applied for and won $24 million for The Banks from President Obama’s economic stimulus package. Can you envision Deters doing that? The Ohio Supreme Court is expected to rule on the dispute by year’s end. In the meantime, residents should question if the prosecutor and judges misapply the law in dealing with the county commissioners, what do they do to the unsuspecting Average Joe?
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Santa Maria Community Services recently opened an International Welcome Center in Price Hill to assist international residents with various needs and help them acclimate to Cincinnati.
The center, located within the Roberts Academy in the 1700 block of Grand Avenue, can link families with local service agencies and provides space for programs including English language courses, financial education and social activities.
Roberts Academy, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Cincinnati public school, serves a highly diverse student body with one in six students from bilingual or non English-speaking households, according to Santa Maria.
PORKOPOLIS TIP LINE: 513-665-4700 (ext. 147) or firstname.lastname@example.org