Friday, November 25, 2005

Article: Ethics ruling sought on law firms' donations

A Good Question
Question raised about contributions to Petro
November 23, 2005
Sandy Theis
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief
Columbus -- When Betty Montgomery was attorney general, a California lawyer said he and his law partners donated to Montgomery's Ohio campaigns because of her high standards -- not because she awarded the firm millions of dollars in state legal work.

"My expectation is she's going to be somebody who I'm going to align myself with in the future," William Earley, managing partner of the San Diego firm, told The Plain Dealer two years ago. "There aren't that many politicians like Betty who have the quality and standards she has."

Apparently, there is at least one more.

Employees of California's Luce, Forward, Hamilton and Scripps have donated $30,000 to Attorney General Jim Petro, who is running against Montgomery and two others to become next year's Republican nominee for governor. Since Petro became attorney general in 2003, he has awarded the California firm $3.2 million in state legal business.

Petro, Montgomery and Earley all have insisted that there is no correlation between law firms that give and those that receive.

Still, Earley's firm finds itself at the center of a burning legal question: Just how much can outside lawyers give to an attorney general and still be eligible for lucrative, unbid legal contracts, known as "special counsel" work?

Columbus attorney Rick Brunner posed the question to the Ohio Elections Commission on Tuesday when he asked the panel for an advisory opinion.

On its face, Ohio's law seems simple. It states that a firm cannot receive an unbid state contract for more than $500 if an individual from the firm or a spouse, partner, shareholder, administrator, executor or trustee has contributed more than $1,000 over two years to the person awarding the contract.

Brunner's reading of the law: Outside lawyers such as those employed by Luce, Forward cannot give Petro more than $1,000 over two years and still serve as special counsel.

A spokesman for Attorney General Petro disagreed.

The law says no "individual" can give more than $1,000, Petro spokesman Mark Anthony said. It does not say no "law firm," and therefore individual members of the firm can each give $1,000, he said.

"All contributions to the Petro campaign are legal and fully reported," Anthony said. "Since 1974, attorneys general and secretaries of state have said the $1,000 [limit] applies to individuals."

When Democrat Anthony Celebrezze Jr. was attorney general from 1993 to 1991, he agreed with Brunner's reading of the law, said Mike O'Grady, who supervised the claims section for the office.

"The law is real simple," O'Grady said. "You and your spouse can't give more than $1,000."

Phil Richter, executive director of the Elections Commission, said the panel is not required to issue an advisory opinion but probably will.

He said he has not yet read Brunner's filing but did note that the Columbus lawyer and his wife, Jennifer, are considered among Ohio's election law experts.

Jennifer Bruner is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for secretary of state.

Larry KehresMount Union Collge
Division III
web page counter
Vermont Teddy Bear Company