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Déjà vu? Advocates worry proposed GOP bill could cause next Ohio corruption scandal

Ohio Senate session
Posted at 8:46 PM, Feb 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-08 20:51:41-05

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio is in the middle of the largest corruption trial in state history, yet Democrats and advocates are raising red flags that another scandal is brewing.

Senate Bill 21has two aspects to a seemingly administrative bill. It would restructure where individuals can contest state agency orders. Since the capital is in Franklin County, most state agencies would require citizens to come to Columbus to argue their case. This legislation would allow residents to contest in their home counties.

In the unrelated second section, the bill would allow the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president to hire legal counsel at any time, for any reason and at any cost.

The legislation, introduced by Republican state Sens. Rob McColley of Napoleon and Michele Reynolds of Canal Winchester, would not be applicable to anyone in the minority party.

"It's really aggravating that during the Householder trial that the focus isn't on how can we create a more transparent system so that taxpayers, ratepayers are not abused in the future," said Catherine Turcer with Common Cause Ohio.

Turcer explained there is already a procedure for obtaining lawyers and that is done through the attorney general’s office.

Senate President Matt Huffman said lawmakers want choice.

"The attorney general represents the state of Ohio," said Huffman. "But on the question of 'does he represent the president of the Senate in all matters—' Maybe, maybe not. But this allows the office in to the future to do that"

When asked if he felt Attorney General Dave Yost hadn't provided people with the attorneys they desired, the president said no. But there are concerns of conflict of interests, he added.

"There's a question with the attorney general as to whether conversations the attorney general has, for example, with the president of the Senate, whether those are privileged confidential conversations," he said. "This sort of removes that obstacle."

The redistricting process also became a bit "cumbersome," the president said, since there were different groups of people who would hire lawyers.

The bill undercuts the authority of the attorney general, and it undermines the concept of separation of powers, constitutional law expert and professor at Case Western Reserve University Jonathan Entin said.

The bill is also flawed for another reason, Entin added.

"The retainer agreements could allow for enormous hourly fees for no good reason," he said. "This is not a way for the legislative leadership to be showing fiscal responsibility."

Statehouse Democrats reached out to News 5 to share their concerns, fearing this could be a way to launder money.

Potential scheme

The bill is vague and doesn't contain any guardrails against corruption. Taxpayers would be funding these additional attorneys and there is no limit to how much can be spent.

"I just think, well, we already have attorneys, why are you interested in this?" Turcer added. "We should be suspicious of this and we should be thinking about how this can cost taxpayers more money."

The lawmakers and the attorneys could engage in "quid pro quo," or an exchange, Entin said. The lawyers may be willing to agree to repay some of that money into campaign funds, or dark money PACs, if they are selected for the job.

News 5 asked Huffman about this possibility, which he seemed surprised at and denied.

"Any money that's appropriated to pay for an attorney would have to be appropriated, and that's all part of the public record," he said.

There will be total transparency because campaign donations are also public, he added.

"This money that would be going to pay an attorney or attorneys for this can't go into a campaign fund," he said.

But Ohioans know what happened with former House Speaker Larry Householder. He is on trial and is accused of accepting a nearly $61 million dollar bribe via a nonprofit he controlled in exchange for legislation that gave a billion-dollar bailout to FirstEnergy.

News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau has been covering the public corruption trial. Click or tap here to read the latest.

Even if the lawmakers add a provision saying the attorneys can’t donate to campaign funds or political parties, Entin said this is "just not good policymaking."

"This bill, as written, doesn't impose any restrictions or any procedural requirements about how to enter into these arrangements, what sorts of restrictions there are on the amount that the private lawyers can charge," he said. "You don't want to give people a proverbial blank check to make their own deals."

"Do you think it's possible that this money could end up in the wrong hands and we could have another corruption scandal, as some Democrats are alleging?" News 5 asked.

"Yes," Entin replied.

The kicker

Gov. Mike DeWine has vetoed this idea already — twice.

"It is virtually unheard of for state or federal courts to permit members of the General Assembly to intervene in lawsuits," DeWine wrote in June of 2021 when issuing his first line-item veto of House Bill 110, the 2022-2023 budget. "This item conflicts with prior court decisions and impinges on the separation of powers."

DeWine, who was Ohio's attorney general from 2011 to 2019, sided with Yost. The attorney general had requested for him to veto it.

"There are just large concerns with the bill in general that we've written about in our veto messages," a DeWine spokesperson Dan Tierney told News 5 Wednesday. "These are fundamental changes to the legal system and the representation with the attorney general's office and, I think, do not seem necessary or there are current mechanisms to deal with the concerns they're trying to address."

The second veto was much more concise.

"The language as drafted in H.B. 286 is simply too broad," DeWine wrote in early January of 2023.

What's next?

The bill was scheduled to be voted out of committee Wednesday, but got pulled at the last minute.

State Sen. Kent Smith (D-Euclid) questioned McColley during the second hearing — asking four major questions.

  1. Who makes the list of "approved" attorneys to choose from?
  2. What is the maximum amount the House, Senate and governor have spent on outside counsel?
  3. Should we cap it at a certain dollar amount?
  4. Can Democrats get these same privileges?

McColley, who is the majority floor leader, declined to do an interview because he is working on making some changes to the bill, he told News 5.

It has been vetoed twice, the system to get attorneys already exists, Yost has no complaints against his attorney picks — so what is making lawmakers continue to push this forward?

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.