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Published: Saturday, 7/29/2006

Ohio legislator rejects charge of improper action

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - In a rare move, a member of the Ohio House yesterday took the stand to rebut accusations that lawmakers illegally plotted behind closed doors to eliminate a proposed one-time window for the filing of lawsuits by victims of decades-old child sex abuse.

Three advocates for the bill claim the Republican majority of the House Judiciary Committee violated Ohio's open-meetings law by privately discussing the bill in a room across the hall shortly before voting to dramatically change provisions unanimously approved by the Senate.

They've asked Franklin County Common Pleas Court to wipe out the March 28 committee vote that killed the "look-back" window, substituted an unprecedented civil registry proposed by Roman Catholic bishops, and scaled back a proposed widening of the statute of limitations for the filing of cases in the future.

Negating the committee vote would also negate the largely party-line House and Senate votes that followed.

It will be weeks before Magistrate Christine Lippe makes her recommendation to Judge Patrick E. Sheerin. In the meantime, the revised law takes effect next week.

Rep. William Coley (R., West Chester), a first-term representative and a committee member, was the only one of eight defendant legislators to testify.

House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) and state Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), an architect of the civil registry concept, had come and gone from the room in which various Republican members of the committee congregated while minority Democrats held an official caucus on the bill. Neither Mr. Husted nor Mr. Seitz are committee members.

At issue is whether a committee majority was present and whether they discussed the bill in violation of state law requiring such deliberations to take place in public. Ohio law provides great latitude for an entire Republican or Democratic caucus of the House to meet privately, but there is no similar exemption for a committee majority.

"To this day, I've never been in that room," said Mr. Coley, who said he mostly remained seated in the committee room during the recess for the Democratic caucus.

He said he and other Republican members doubted the constitutionality of retroactively resurrecting cases for which the statute of limitations had long expired.

"We brought evidence of conspiracy and cover-up [about the church], and then it was as though our cries for help fell on deaf ears when right in front of us lawmakers conspired behind closed doors to continue the cover-up," said Claudia Vercellotti, Toledo coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. She is one of the three victim plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"It just further exacerbated the issues we were there about," she said.

Mr. Coley described the atmosphere in the hallway outside the overflowing committee room as a "madhouse or a zoo." Three people had previously testified that they saw him enter or leave the room where the discussions were reportedly taking place, but he testified they were mistaken. He said he was offended by the accusation.

"It is wrong to accuse legislators of violating some duty because they didn't want to sit in a crowded, hot, stuffy hearing room that was charged with emotion. It's ridiculous," he said later after testifying.

He dismissed the suggestion he was selected to testify in lieu of other representatives because he faces no election opposition in November and is one of the most junior members.

"If I was going to pick a Marvin Milquetoast junior member that didn't know anything, I sure wouldn't send me," he said. "One thing I'm not is a shrinking violet."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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