Ohio taxpayers should be afraid. Very afraid.
They're already in the hole for $3.6 million for the long-running school funding lawsuit, a legal action that is as ironic as it is expensive - in effect the taxpayers are suing themselves.
The happy recipient of that money is the Columbus law firm of Bricker & Eckler. The fees are paid by taxpayer-funded dues collected from the 515 Ohio school districts which belong to the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding.
Bricker & Eckler's impressive fees have ranged from the inane - 92 billings for public relations discussions on how best to deal with those pesky reporters - to the outrageous.
When the state hired an independent analyst, a respected Columbus lawyer not affiliated with the firm, to examine Bricker & Eckler's bills, he found, among other oddities, a bill for seven hours in April 1996 that included consultation to “prepare a list of scare tactics.”
Now, four years later, when the firm is asked to explain just what that meant, nobody remembers. Not Bill Phillis, the executive director of the coalition, which first brought the lawsuit 10 years ago. Not Nicholas Pittner, Bricker & Eckler's lead attorney for the coalition. But there it is in the billing records. That's scary.
In fact, this long legal odyssey could rightly be called the Bricker & Eckler Enrichment Case. There is still no end in sight to the decade-long litigation. If, as some expect, the Ohio Supreme Court rules yet a third time that the state has not adequately addressed the school funding issue, the lawsuit lives on.
Mr. Phillis and the coalition expect to file, at some point, a request for another $1 million in legal fees, but that request has been delayed, and it's hard to dispute Ohio Senate President Richard Finan's suspicion that the delay reflects the coalition's concern that another whopping legal bill will hurt its pending case before the Supreme Court.
Equally galling is the evident disparity in hourly rates, depending on whether Bricker & Eckler was billing the coalition or the state. Mr. Pittner billed the coalition $143 an hour but boosted that to $190 when billing the state. Explanations that the lower amount reflected a “discount” to the coalition because of its efforts to improve Ohio schools fall a little flat.
If Bricker & Eckler is really doing God's work, God must charge an arm and a leg. The fact is that the firm has been living off state government for years, milking the good name of long-ago U.S. Senator and former Governor John Bricker, facilitating access to state agencies, and giving abundant work to accounts-receivable clerks. Maybe some of this legal representation should be done pro bono, at no charge.
At his first inaugural as Ohio governor in 1939, Mr. Bricker noted that “representative government must be founded upon the interests of the local communities.” We wonder if the local school districts' interests truly are paramount in this long legal battle.
Given the school funding gravy train, one can understand Bricker & Eckler's reluctance to settle. As Senator Finan rightly noted, “they think they've got the Supreme Court locked, and as long as they feel that way, there's no basis for compromise.”
As for scare tactics, how about this one: the longer the lawsuit drags on, and the longer Ohio goes without a resolution, the greater the chances that a tax increase is looming for education. That would be a sorry outcome, but the way things are going, the state may need one just to pay the legal bills.