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Groups call for removal of Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell from ECOT case

Two groups are seeking the removal of Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell from hearing a case involving the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow because of political contributions he received from the founder of the defunct charter school.

Common Cause Ohio and ProgressOhio filed a complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel to investigate Justice O’Donnell's relationship with ECOT's founder William Lager and his ability to remain impartial.

The complaint calls into question Mr. Lager's campaign donation of $3,450 in 2012 to Justice O'Donnell and the speech he gave for the online charter school's commencement in June, 2013.

The organizations said the relationship violates the code of conduct that calls for judges from having any "appearance of impropriety" and act in a manner consistent with "promoting public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."

ECOT currently has a case pending before the Supreme Court in its legal battle with the Ohio Department of Education over the millions of dollars state officials claim the school owes because it submitted inflated attendance numbers.

The court voted 5-1 in December not to speed up ECOT's appeal of the state's efforts to claw back tens of millions of subsidy dollars. Justice O'Donnell cast the sole dissenting vote in the decision. The court is scheduled to hear arguments Feb. 13 on the state's efforts to recover more than $60 million from ECOT.

The non-profit government watchdog group Common Cause Ohio urged Justice O'Donnell to remove himself from the case.

"A case of this magnitude demands that all justices avoid creating a perception of bias," said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio. "Justice O'Donnell's long-standing affiliation with ECOT's founder, coupled with contributions from him, cross the line."

Sandy Theis, executive director of the liberal advocacy group ProgressOhio, also urged Justice O'Donnell to recuse himself from the case.

"This case is incredibly important for every taxpayer in the state and for tens of thousands of kids and their families. We can't have a judge on this case who is inclined to put his thumb on the scale of justice for ECOT," she said.

A message left with the Supreme Court for Justice O'Donnell was not returned.

ECOT closed its doors on Jan. 19 after Toledo-based Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, seeing that the school would be insolvent in March, pulled sponsorship of the publicly funded e-school, leaving families of roughly 12,000 students to find other schooling options.

The state had been withholding $2.5 million a month from ECOT's funding to claw back what it says were past overpayments to the school based on the true amount of time students were actually logging in to take courses as opposed to enrollment numbers submitted by the school.

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-724-6199

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