COLUMBUS, Ohio (Legal Newsline) – Expected to win in a landslide, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, if re-elected, will continue to award special counsel contracts to law firms who contribute heavily to his campaign, according to the Democrat facing him in the general election.
Attorney David Pepper, the Democratic nominee and former Cincinnati council member, has built his campaign on the promise of ending “pay-to-play” politics in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, saying the current rule enforcer, DeWine, is in actuality the biggest rule breaker.
Attorneys general often outsource lucrative work to private law firms when instigating civil litigation against major corporations. Some attorneys general use panels consisting of law firms to advise them on what types of suits to bring on behalf of the state.
“DeWine has shown no inclination to change anything,” Pepper said. “He’s shown no evidence on how the selection process works, but there is a clear correlation between who is giving and being selected in a contract bid window. Every year the amount contributed is going up. It’s almost like he’s perfecting how much money he can raise every year.”
Ryan Stubenrauch, a DeWine campaign spokesperson, maintains Pepper's accusations are just that, accusations, saying "DeWine has no idea who contributes and when" and only considers a firm's experience when selecting a law firm.
"DeWine has a long career in politics and has never been accused of anything unethical," Stubenrauch said. "Going back 50 years, the challenger is always screaming 'pay-to-play.' Eight years ago it was the Democrats."
Throughout the 2014 election cycle, a series of scathing articles from various news outlets have all attempted to depict a pattern of behavior of the Republican attorney general, suggesting DeWine primarily awards state contracts to bidders willing to stuff his coffers and those of the Republican Party.
The Dayton Daily News was the first to break the story back in late January, reporting that law firms representing and seeking to represent the State in securities fraud cases and other legal matters have donated more than $1.3 million to DeWine and his Republican allies.
The article cites several examples of attorneys supposedly attempting to buy their way into the attorney general’s graces.
Berman DeValerio, a Boston-based firm that has served on the attorney general’s securities advisory panel the past several years, donated $2,000 to DeWine’s son, Judge Pat DeWine, on Aug. 16, 2012 – just a week after the senior DeWine told the firm’s co-founder, Glen DeValerio, his firm had once again made the panel.
And on the same day the New York law firm Labaton Sucharow submitted its proposal to serve on DeWine’s panel, four of the firm’s partners contributed $16,000 to DeWine’s campaign – amounts exceeding Ohio contribution limits, which cap donations at $1,000 donations from those seeking unbid state contracts to the officeholders who award the work.
The donations were returned after the Daily News made the office aware.
On July 6, 2012, attorneys from Cincinnati-based Keating Muething & Klekamp contributed $7,000 to DeWine’s campaign – one week after they submitted their panel application.
Another firm - Dayton-based Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz - served on the panel under the former attorney general, Democrat Richard Cordray. The firm did not contribute to DeWine in 2011 and was rejected for the panel in May 2011. The firm gave $25,000 to the Ohio GOP in June 2011 and was selected for the 2012 panel.
The article further contends DeWine has used the cash influx he’s received from attorneys seeking attorney general work to pay off the bulk of a $2 million personal loan he made to his campaign in 2010 and build up his war chest for his 2014 re-election bid.
Stubenrauch countered any assertions of pay-to-play by saying "plenty of people gave money and didn't get work."
Nevertheless, the string of provocative articles continued.
On May 27 the Columbus Dispatch reported DeWine sought to hire 63 law firms at a cost of $26.4 million to represent state agencies and boards, and that the lawyers employed by those firms had contributed a total of $359,000 to DeWine since 2010.
A month later, an Associated Press article found DeWine’s selection process for hiring outside law firms has gone essentially undocumented, reporting the Attorney General’s Office provided little written evidence on how a selection committee went about vetting law firms.
“The office must have a merit-based system for selection, and that means bending over backwards to be transparent,” Pepper said. “As attorney general, I will show a paper trail. Bidders will be scored by real criteria. I will put the names of selected firms online.”
On his campaign website, Pepper features a four-minute long video that, among other charges, attempts to break down the flow of the alleged pay-to-play donations bouncing between Ohio Republican Party organizations and DeWine.
The video, supported by campaign finance reports, asserts the attorneys of law firms selected by DeWine have donated $800,000 to the Ohio Republican Party State Candidates Fund, which in turn has given DeWine $917,537.
Stubenrauch says Pepper is taking a "small aspect" and "twisting" the truth to "make it bigger than what it really is."
If he manages to unseat DeWine, Pepper is promising to put an end to pay-to-play by instituting the Pepper Plan, a five-point blueprint that will, in addition to adding transparency to the contract bidding process, introduce a contribution blackout period barring donations in the period before, during and immediately after the bidding process – a bold plan considering attorneys have been a staple of Pepper’s funding.
As of Sept. 4, Pepper had more than $2.1 million cash on hand, about $1.4 million less than the contents of DeWine’s war chest, campaign finance records show.
Since 2009, Pepper has landed 1,359 donations from individuals whose occupations are listed as attorney.
In the month of August alone, Pepper had more than four dozen attorneys donate to his campaign, including two donations from Cooper & Elliott attorneys totaling $2,144.89 and a $4,450 donation from Joyce Barrett, a Cleveland attorney.
However, Pepper, a Blank Rome lawyer who has received tens of thousands of dollars from the international firm and its attorneys, says the problem isn’t really that lawyers give, but more or less when they give.
“I have said all along there is nothing wrong with attorneys donating,” Pepper said, adding that the solution is making sure donations from attorneys seeking lucrative contracts from the Attorney General’s Office are “cut off” when a bid window opens.
Nonetheless, a fat war chest and an opponent peppered with pay-to-play allegations may not be enough for the Democratic challenger to unseat the incumbent.
A recent poll in the Columbus Dispatch, conducted the first week of September, shows Ohio voters favor DeWine over Pepper by a 60-32 percent margin.
With Election Day rapidly approaching, Pepper says he’s undaunted by the polling numbers and will use the millions he has amassed to close the gap on an attorney general “spending too much time being a rightwing attorney, rather than Ohio’s attorney.”
“Of course he’s ahead of us – we expected this all along,” Pepper said. “I’m running against someone who has been on the ballot almost as long as I’ve been alive.”
Although DeWine has name recognition going for him, Pepper added that an internal poll shows the attorney general’s job approval rating is around 30 percent.
Gunning for his second term, DeWine previously served as a state senator from 1981-1982, a U.S. representative from 1983-1991, lieutenant governor from 1991-1994, and a member of the U.S. Senate from 1995-2007.
Many members of the media have speculated DeWine will run for governor in 2018.
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