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DeWine's office won't address demand for new probe of Rep. Seitz

By Randy Ludlow • Updated Jul 5, 2018 at 11:43 PM

The office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine responded Monday to a request by two Democratic House members for a new investigation of Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, by citing attorney-client privilege.

Reps. Teresa Fedor of Toledo and Nickie Antonio of Lakewood wrote DeWine on Friday seeking a new investigation due to an alleged conflict of interest involving the law firm — for which Seitz worked for 36 years — that DeWine's office appointed to investigate a sexual-harassment complaint against the lawmaker.

Mary Mertz, first assistant attorney general to the Republican DeWine, did not explicitly address the lawmakers' demand for a new investigation by an independent party.

Details of the special-counsel assignment to the Cincinnati-based law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, at the request of House officials, including any discussions the attorney general's office had with members of the law firm or House, are attorney-client privileged and cannot be disclosed, Mertz wrote.

Responding to the lawmakers' complaints of "myriad problems" with the investigation of Seitz by his former law firm, Mertz wrote that Taft, Stettenius & Hollister complied with a conflict-of-interest check and reported it had none, Mertz said. "We were not made aware of any connection between (Seitz) ... and Taft Stettinius & Hollister," she wrote. A DeWine spokesman said previously it was "displeased" with the law firm's report it had no conflict in investigating Seitz.

A House spokesman has said it was common knowledge that Seitz once worked for the Taft firm and that House officials were assured it could investigate the House majority leader when the firm reported no conflict.

The law firm's political action committee gave Seitz a $1,000 campaign donation while two lawyers in its Columbus office, whom Seitz said he did not know, investigated him.

Antonio said she was disappointed by Monday's response from DeWine's office. "I think the people have a right to have an investigation that is independent and objective ... I'll accept the findings of an independent investigation. In my my mind, a past work relationship, and donating to the campaign of the person being investigated, muddies the water."

The Taft firm was appointed by DeWine's office to investigate an anonymous complaint alleging that Seitz made sexually tinged comments constituting sexual harassment at a House going-away party. The law firm's investigation found Seitz' remarks "inappropriate," but said they did not cross the line to constitute sexual harassment. The complaint might have been politically motivated, the report said.

Seitz denied wrongdoing. A senior partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister declined to discuss the matter last week.

DeWine is running for governor against Democratic candidate Richard Cordray, a former attorney general whom DeWine defeated in 2010.

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Law firm that cleared legislator Seitz also gave him cash

The Ohio House of Representatives regularly has turned to the law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister when in need of an outside investigator.

So, when an anonymous complaint alleged that Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, made sexually tinged comments constituting sexual harassment at a going-away party, House officials again turned to Taft — while knowing Seitz worked for the law firm for 36 years until 2014.

Asked if the request to the office of Attorney General Mike DeWine to hire the law firm (which was approved Feb. 20) was made with knowledge that Seitz long worked for the Taft firm, House spokesman Brad Miller said, "That was pretty public knowledge that he had."

"We had worked with them often in the past and do rely on their judgment on these type of matters. When we learned they did not see any conflict of interest, we felt comfortable moving forward" with its handling of the Seitz investigation, Miller said.

The hiring of Seitz' former long-time employer to investigate him is now attracting criticism. Concern is heightened by the fact that Taft, Stettinius & Hollister's political action committee gave $1,000 to Seitz' campaign committee March 9 — while two of the firm's lawyers were in the midst of their investigation before later finding the lawmaker did not violate the House harassment policy.

The Dispatch also found that Taft partner Edward Diller gave $500 to Seitz' campaign Feb. 20, the same day DeWine's office approved the law firm's work for the House. Diller said he is semi-retired and knew nothing about the Seitz investigation handled by his firm. ProgressOhio, a liberal think tank, calculated Seitz has received about $41,000 in campaign donations from Taft and its lawyers since 2000.

The law firm's investigation found Seitz' remarks "inappropriate," but said they did not cross the line to constitute sexual harassment. The complaint might have been politically motivated, the report said.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said his office asked Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, as if does all all outside counsel, it if had a conflict of interest in handling the Seitz investigation because the attorney general's office cannot know all of a firm's clients or other potential conflicts.

"They reported no conflict to us," he said. "The obligation is on the firm to tell us if there is a conflict of interest. We are displeased they did not inform us of the situation."

Stuart Dornette, a partner in the Cincinnati-based law firm, declined to comment.

Asked if the attorney general's office does any independent vetting of would-be outside law firms for potential conflicts, Tierney declined to answer directly.

"Clearly it is a conflict of interest for a law firm to give a contribution to a candidate that it is investigating," said Common Cause Ohio Executive Director Catherine Turcer. "The conflict should have been clear to the attorney general's office. State Rep. Bill Seitz has been a key player at the Ohio Statehouse for a long time and his former affiliation with Taft Stettinius and Hollister is well known."

The attorney general's office authorized the law firm to perform up to $12,000 in work on the Seitz case at $200 an hour. The firm charged $7,962 for two lawyers while only interviewing Seitz and two others who attended the Jan. 23 party for departing Chief of Staff Mike Dittoe at the Athletic Club in downtown Columbus. The lawyers determined the identity of the woman who made the anonymous complaint, but she did not attend the event and declined to be interviewed.

The two lawyers who handled the matter are in the Columbus office of the Taft firm. Seitz formerly worked in the Cincinnati office. One of the lawyers, Janica Pierce Tucker, is a Democrat once nominated as a finalist for a judicial appointment by former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. Seitz said he did not know the lawyers who handled the investigation.

"To this day, no one who actually attended the roast has complained to the House, the investigators, or to me about the comments made by me at the roast," Seitz said in an email. "No matter what law firm conducted the investigation," the complaint was anonymous and without merit, the House majority floor leader wrote.

Taft, Stettinius & Hollister was granted $1.4 million in outside counsel work by DeWine's office over the past fiscal year, which ends Saturday. The law firm's PAC gave $10,000 to Republican DeWine's campaign for governor Dec. 11.

Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, asked DeWine's office for public records associated with the investigation of Seitz, whom she called upon to resign. She said it is "clear the leadership of the House and AG DeWine wanted to whitewash this particular incident."

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©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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