Deters, Finney Stretch Believability

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled June 9 that Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters was within his legal authority last October when he convinced 12 Common Pleas judges to sign an order firing a private law firm used for years by Hamilton County commissioners

Jun 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Here are two amazing facts about last week’s Ohio Supreme Court decision that upheld the firing of some attorneys by the county prosecutor.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled June 9 that Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters was within his legal authority last October when he convinced 12 Common Pleas judges to sign an order firing a private law firm used for years by Hamilton County commissioners. The action was taken without prior notification to the commissioners and occurred only after they had cut $15 million from the Prosecutor’s Office budget.

Deters had said the law firm’s use was an unneeded expense during a period of looming deficits and that his office could adequately handle the work, which involved The Banks riverfront project.

Just a week before the high court’s decision, another judge in a lawsuit related to Deters’ action — which alleged the commission violated open meetings laws by discussing the issue privately — had sided with commissioners. That judge, John D. Martin, called Deters “unprofessional” and criticized him for taking the action without the commission’s input.

But in a 6-0 decision, the state Supreme Court said Deters and the Common Pleas judges did have the authority — sort of. The justices based their decision on the manner in which the commissioners challenged the firing, by asking the court for a “writ of prohibition” rather than seeking an appeal.

“Because the Common Pleas Court and its judges did not patently and unambiguously lack jurisdiction to issue the order terminating the board’s employment of special counsel, the board had an adequate remedy by a timely appeal from that order to raise its claims,” the ruling stated.

In other words, Commissioners David Pepper and Todd Portune sought the wrong type of legal remedy, and Deters’ action was upheld on a technicality.

Pepper and Portune believed, however, that the Common Pleas Court lacked any jurisdiction whatsoever, meaning an appeal was unnecessary because the entire court order was improper.

It’s worth mentioning that new Chief Justice Eric Brown didn’t participate in the case. The remaining six justices are Republican, as is Deters; Pepper and Portune are Democrats.

So, here’s Amazing Fact No. 1: The case had been before the Ohio Supreme Court for months. Before Brown replaced former Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, who died April 2, every motion submitted to the court by Deters — based on the same arguments cited in the ruling — had been rejected. Suddenly, after months of being unswayed by Deters’ pleadings, the court reversed course in the absence of Moyers’ influence.

By the way, Justice Maureen O’Connor is running against Brown to become chief justice. Oh, yeah, Deters is co-hosting a campaign fundraising event for O’Connor. I wonder if that factored into the decision? Naaahhh.

Now it’s time for a game of “Connect the Dots.”

Deters wants one of his office’s latest hires — Warren County Republican Party Chairman Tom Grossmann to handle Banks-related issues for the commissioners. Until recently, Grossmann was on staff with the Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm. That’s the same law firm that represents the Bengals, the major player in riverfront redevelopment that county officials must negotiate with; it also represents the Freedom Center and U.S. Bank Arena.

(Deters’ event for O’Connor is June 24 at the Taft offices.)

When commissioners confronted Deters awhile back about a possible conflict of interest, Grossmann’s name disappeared from the law firm’s Web site. Still, if you call the firm and ask for him (as CityBeat recently did), you will be transferred to his secretary. She will give you his cell phone number and personal e-mail address. Sounds shady to us.

Nevertheless, Deters said at a press conference June 9 that he replied earlier to the commissioners’ concerns. Commissioners and county staff countered they had never received any letter; on June 10, a letter was hand-delivered to them by a Deters staffer.

Here’s Amazing Fact No. 2: Although the first page of Deters’ four-page letter is dated May 26, the other pages are dated June 8 — a day before Deters’ press conference, although it wasn’t delivered until two days afterward. Unless the pages were retyped for some reason, it appears Deters is trying to mislead people about when he addressed the issue.

So, Deters never notified commissioners before he fired the private attorneys, and he can’t get the date straight about when he replied to another matter. Yet his office can handle the complicated issues around riverfront redevelopment.

I bet almost any jury would reject that argument.


We’ve written often about the unseemly antics of attorney Chris Finney, a leader of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

They include the time Finney cost the county $9,700 for its part in the liability incurred when Finney misused the arrest warrant process to have a contractor jailed; Finney eventually settled with the contractor.

And then there’s the time that Finney drove to a press conference given by then-candidate, now County Commissioner David Pepper. (Pepper was running against Phil Heimlich, Finney’s friend and business partner.) Once there, Finney interrupted the event and told Pepper’s press secretary to “kiss my ass.” For good measure, Finney called Pepper “a rich, fucking asshole.”

As it turns out, another unusual incident occurred in February that received scant attention until now. That’s when Finney rushed to the aid of a friend, businesswoman Suzanne LaChapelle. She was jailed for contempt of court after failing to appear at a Domestic Relations Court hearing and for ignoring a court order involving her son for 11 months. Once jailed, LaChapelle couldn’t reach her divorce attorney, Nathan Elter, so she called Finney.

According to courthouse personnel, Finney went to Judge Elizabeth Mattingly’s staff and implied he was Elter, before trying to intervene in the case. Staffers knew it wasn’t Elter and refused him.

Later, at a February hearing, Mattingly questioned LaChapelle about the incident. Here’s the transcript.

Judge: “Ma’am, did anyone else represent you in this case other than Mr. Elter? Because someone came to the court purporting to be Mr. Elter and represented that they were your attorney.”

LaChapelle: “My divorce attorney is Mr. Elter.”

Judge: “So, you’re not aware of anybody else purporting to be Mr. Elter and representing to the court that that’s who he was and argue on your behalf to get you out of jail?”

Elter: “That was Mr. Finney.”

LaChapelle: “Oh, with Chris Finney. He had come down on his own. He’s an attorney, he’s not a divorce attorney and he does not represent me in a divorce. But he’s been my attorney on other business pieces and, um,

so he had, uh, when, um, I discussed what was happening and I couldn’t get a hold of Mr. Elter and had called Chris to ask him what to do because I had no idea what was going on and was scared. And so, um, that’s when — I didn’t ask him to do anything — he said he would see what he could find out. Being an attorney, I thought that he would make some calls, do whatever, but in no way would he represent himself as my attorney, Mr. Elter. Physically, they don’t look anything alike. I’m not exactly sure what he done (sic) , I wasn’t here or ask him to do anything.”

Judge: “Well, all I can tell you is given what happened and how he treated the staff here, I would suggest to you that should any problem recur, that you not ask for Mr. Finney’s assistance because, frankly, he didn’t help you much and was somewhat rude to staff. More than somewhat rude.”

LaChapelle: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Elter didn’t return repeated telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment. Via e-mail, Finney said he didn’t impersonate Elter.

“I have never misrepresented by identity to court personnel in this matter or otherwise,” Finney wrote. “I would have no reason to. If someone alleged I did, they were mistaken.”

He continued, “I did go to speak to a bailiff or some other representative of the court, identified myself several times in that conversation and clearly indicated I was not the regular counsel for Ms. LaChapelle. The purpose of the visit was to discuss with court personnel an arrest warrant that had been issued for a client of mine because her regular counsel was in court in another county (as I recall).”

One COAST leader recently had his home foreclosed, while another had his paychecks garnished to pay the private school tuition for his son. Yet it’s these same people who want to give city and county officials advice about how to spend taxpayer money and, through work with Citizens for Community Values, tell us how to conduct moral lives.

It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.