Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Ohio Reform Measures Qualify for Ballot! - Attorney General Abandons Post for Campaign Cash

As Bill Hershey reports in the Dayton Daily News, four reform initiatives have qualified in Ohio for the November 8, 2005 ballot. (See the official letter of certification.) The initiatives, backed by TheRestofUs.org and Reform Ohio Now, would: reduce political campaign contribution limits; create an independent commission for drawing Ohio's legislative and congressional districts; allow absentee balloting in the 35 days before an election; and provide for an independent election administration commission within the Secretary of State's office.

While Secretary Blackwell was busy doing his job, Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro was neglecting his. As Jim Provance reports in the Toledo Blade, Petro has filed an amicus brief on behalf of Ohio First, a private group registered as a religious nonprofit in Delaware, arguing that any signatures collected by out-of-state circulators are invalid. Petro's filing of the amicus brief in the lawsuit created a conflict of interest which prevented him from defending the Secretary of State from the lawsuit, the job of the attorney general.

Petro's filing of an amicus brief on behalf of Ohio First raised several questions:
1) Why is Petro fighting for a private group, while leaving his fellow constitutional officer and the state of Ohio without representation? -- The Attorney General is obligated to represent state officers and agencies in lawsuits.
2) Why didn't Petro file challenges against other initiatives that used out-of-state circulators for gathering signatures? -- Issue 1, an initiative dealing with gay marriage, used out-of-state circulators to gather signatures last year, yet Petro took no action against it.
3) Why is Petro trying to knock these particular initiatives off the ballot? -- The RON inititaives collected signatures in the same way as many other initiatives, in a way expressly approved by the past two Secretaries of State.

Also: three of Ohio's biggest law firms are currently representing Ohio First, yet the Ohio First spokespeople have insisted the group hasn't solicited or raised a nickel. Who is paying for all these lawyers? And if no one is, why are these firms providing free representation to the group?

Petro's campaign finance and the special counsel contracts doled out to the law firms representing Ohio First may offer an answer to those questions. Petro has raised at least $140,000 from those law firms over the course of his career. The law firms have received some $10 million in special counsel contracts from the Attorney General's office during Petro's tenure there. Throw in the upcoming 2006 gubernatorial election, in which Petro, Blackwell, and State Auditor Betty Montgomery are the leading candidates for the GOP nomination, and a picture begins to take form.

Petro gets campaign cash from lawyers, lawyers get special counsel contracts from Petro. Ohio First gets legal counsel from lawyers and an amicus brief from the Attorney General. While Ohio First's backers have not yet been made public, don't be too surprised when they're revealed if a lot of them are also contributors to Mr. Petro.

As powerful, wealthy interests line up against these reform initiatives, it becomes more and more clear that the time is ripe for reform in Ohio.

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