‘Pay to play’ in AG office questioned

Special counsel contracts at issue

Democrat David Pepper
Democrat David Pepper

COLUMBUS — Shining a light on campaign contributions from lawyers doing business with the Ohio attorney general would help reduce influence on hiring decisions, the Democratic candidate for the office said Monday.

But David Pepper, a former Hamilton County commissioner, did not call for a ban on such contributions from those who want to serve as special counsel on lucrative state cases.

“It’s a game-changer, and if you get on one of those cases, the fees are astronomical, and they know it,” Mr. Pepper said.

Questions about potential “pay to play” pop up on a regular basis during campaign seasons.

Mr. Pepper said points raised by the Dayton Daily News about the award of special counsel contracts to lawyers who gave to incumbent Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s re-election campaign show the practice has reached a new level.

Mr. DeWine, a Republican, has gradually paid down a $2 million loan that the former U.S. senator made to his own campaign in 2010. The loan now has a $300,000 balance.

An argument can be made that some contributions are going to Mr. DeWine himself, Mr. Pepper said. “There’s been a frenzy of activity,” he said.

Mr. DeWine said his office follows the law.

“It’s no different than any statewide office holder with contracts,” Mr. DeWine said. “My assistant attorney general tries to match the client with the right lawyer. We represent every state university, all state agencies, the governor, legislature, and the secretary of state. In some cases, we need specialized lawyers outside of our office."

“We really have two considerations,” he said. “We try to set the lawyer to the case who has the expertise in that area. Secondly, we try to find a lawyer who will do it for a reasonable cost.”

Mr. Pepper called for a blackout period for fund-raising during the time immediately preceding and following special counsel contract decisions.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.