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Challenger For AG's Office Alleges Cronyism Among Firms Representing State

Attorney General Mike DeWine is standing by his office’s policies when it comes to selecting law firms to perform state work. This process is under fire after the Dayton Daily News reported a possible link between campaign contributions and awarded contracts. DeWine's Democratic challenger says DeWine is running a pay-to-play system.  Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow reports.

The Democratic candidate for attorney general wants to revamp the system that chooses which firms and companies get contracted for state work. David Pepper of Cincinnati says the current policies lack honesty and accountability.

Pepper unveiled his plan in response to a report from the Dayton Daily News showing that law firms seeking state work from the attorney general’s office made $1.3 million in campaign contributions to Attorney General Mike DeWine’s campaign, the campaign of DeWine’s son, and the Ohio Republican Party.

Pepper says this is clearly a pay-to-play process.

Pepper: “The worst part—perhaps—is except for one firm whose head lawyer had been in trouble and ultimately was disbarred—every firm that sent checks on the same day got work. Firms that sent checks a week after they sent the proposal in—got work. My view is those are the checks that are the most troublesome but in the last couple of years success rate of people sending in checks on the same day has been incredible.”

These are firms that are applying to represent the state in securities fraud cases and other legal issues.

DeWine denies contributions playing any role in which companies are offered a contract.

The current process, DeWine says, involves lawyers in his office searching for applicants that match the appropriate set of skills needed for any given case. He adds that his office also tries to find the best price.

According to Pepper, if he were attorney general, he would implement five steps to improve the selection process. Pepper says he would make it clear which firms, companies and vendors were doing work for the attorney general’s office; he would set clear objectives for how these applications would be judged; create an independent review board; ban contributions before, during and after the application process; and require full disclosure of contributions.

According to DeWine, some of Pepper’s suggestions are policies already in place at the attorney general’s office, like transparent contract records. However, DeWine took issue with other elements of Pepper’s plan, like the independent review board made up of legal professionals.

DeWine: “A panel that he is talking about of lawyers who would make this decision would create a potential attorney-client problem in that we would have to disclose information to the panel that might be attorney-client privileged information between us as the lawyers and the state university or the state agency involved.”

DeWine says this kind of suggestion shows Pepper is inexperienced and unsuited to be Ohio’s attorney general.

DeWine: “David Pepper really is the most unqualified—person with a lack of qualifications—of anybody in my lifetime ever to run for attorney general. He’s never prosecuted a case, has precious little experience in any kind of serious litigation in a courtroom. So I think this just shows—frankly—his lack of knowledge and understanding about the office.”

Pepper admits that there are probably firms listed in the report that have contributed to his own campaign but he doesn’t see it as a problem as long as he launches his proposed changes to the application system. Pepper believes companies will be relieved by his plan.

Pepper: “I can’t think of a worse situation than a managing partner in a good law firm sending in a proposal to the AG’s office and then getting a call a week later asking for money. I can’t think of anything worse for the head of that firm that they’re stuck thinking—listen everyone’s doing it—I either give a contribution and risk looking like I’m part of something I don’t want to be part of. Or I say no to the attorney general and I don’t get picked.”

Pepper says it’s not for him to say whether DeWine broke the law but did say he’d like to see an investigation by the U.S. attorney. House Democrats have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for a review.

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