Joe Deters’ nearly eight years of practicing law on the side has led to ethical wormholes

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters is technically a part-time employee, though he makes more than $80,000 a year.

Sep 7, 2016 at 9:53 am

With elections two months away, Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters is again asking voters to renew his hold on a job that he has treated as a part-time gig for almost eight years running.

Deters has been the county’s top law enforcement officer on and off since 1992, continuously since 2005. The fact that he’s only a part-timer isn’t common knowledge, nor is the fact that he surrenders a tidy $37,000 a year in salary to engage in private practice.

But doing so has been a juicy trade-off for Deters. Starting in 2009, he made $200,000 a year during a five-year run at the now-defunct law firm of Stan Chesley, according to papers in Deters’ 2013 divorce case. His $990,000 slice of a big civil lawsuit settlement from the Chesley days made his $87,502 prosecutor’s salary look like chump change.

State law allows elected prosecutors to go part-time. Most who exercise that option, though, are in smaller counties where the pay — and workloads — are lower. Among prosecutors in Ohio’s 10 most-populated counties, only one — Deters — is a part-timer.

Dennis Will, the prosecuting attorney in Lorain County — Ohio’s ninth-biggest county — says he couldn’t conceive of having a law practice on the side.

“Being a prosecutor is such a full-time job by nature of the work you’ve got that you don’t have time to pull it off,” Will says. “It’s a full time of your attention. It’s a tough job.”

Even the prosecutor in Ohio’s least-populous county — Trecia Kimes-Brown in Vinton County — shuns the urge to supplement her salary. She closed her private practice after being elected in 2012.

Although Chesley’s disbarments and the collapse of his law firm ended Deters’ gravy train in March 2014, Deters retains a loose “of counsel” role at the Cincinnati firm formed by former Chesley attorneys Markovits, Stock & DeMarco. He plays a more active role as a trial lawyer for The Deters Law Firm — that of suspended Kentucky lawyer Eric Deters, no relation — in at least nine civil lawsuits pending against Abubakar Atiq Durrani, a Mason doctor criminally charged with performing unnecessary surgeries and billing federal insurance programs. Upon joining those suits as co-counsel, he has given the court his email address at Eric Deters’ law firm, as well as the firm’s addresses in Cincinnati and Fort Mitchell, Ky.

Neither association, however, is listed on Deters’ official bio page or in his latest financial disclosure statement with the Ohio Ethics Commission, filed in March. The form does not require him to disclose his compensation. Deters, through a spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed by CityBeat.

But Deters’ penchant for moonlighting leads to some curious, if not ethically dubious, situations.

In a widely publicized 2015 case, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman blocked the attempted collection of a $42 million civil judgment against Chesley from Kentucky. The plaintiffs appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, where Ruehlman was represented by Deters in one of his roles as prosecuting attorney. As a result, Deters defended a judge who protected a former employer whose firm had paid Deters $200,000 a year and had put him up rent-free in a Fourth Street condo, according to Deters’ divorce file.

Deters’ efforts were for naught. The Supreme Court overturned Ruehlman in June. It said he had no grounds for running interference for Deters’ former benefactor.

Did Deters have a conflict of interest that should have kept him from representing Ruehlman? Geoffrey Hazard Jr., a law professor at the University of California-Hastings and author of several books on law profession ethics, said it comes down to “imputation,” or the attributing of actions to a source.

“The point is, what’s the degree of involvement of (Deters) with the Chesley firm?” Hazard says. “If it’s relatively small in handling cases, then you say, ‘no imputation,’ and it’s therefore professionally permitted. … But $200,000 is a useful number because that’s not incidental.”

Another law professor, Arthur Greenbaum at Ohio State University, says Deters was merely carrying out his statutory duties of defending Ruehlman from a legal challenge.

“Further, judges often know the lawyers before them and may have friendships with some,” Greenbaum says, “but we don’t assume that the judge will be unfair or biased in the matter.”

Ruehlman stars in another blockbuster court case featuring Deters as a private practitioner — the Durrani litigation. This is a sprawling affair, with hundreds of suits pending in Hamilton County. Originally, cases were assigned to judges randomly. But in January 2015, Ruehlman commandeered all present and future cases before himself. Lawyers for Durrani and other medical provider defendants objected and have taken their beef to the Ohio Supreme Court. In one of their appeal pleadings, Durrani’s attorneys wrote that “Ruehlman indicated the idea of consolidation was prompted by a conversation between him and Mr. Deters.”

Once Ruehlman gained control of the Durrani litigation, he made another controversial call. Three hospital defendants argued that claims against them by Durrani patients were invalid because they were more than four years old. The state Supreme Court had upheld that statute of limitations in the past. But Ruehlman dismissed their claims. 

That decision led to his second reversal by a higher court in the last two months. Last week, the Ohio First District Court of Appeals unwound Ruehlman’s ruling against the hospitals. The majority wrote that he had “no authority to effectively overrule the Ohio Supreme Court.” 

If anyone wants to know how Deters splits his time between his prosecutor’s job and his private practice, it isn’t publicly disclosed. If anyone wants to insist that he be barred from moonlighting, it would take a legislative act.

Hazard, the law professor, was surprised to learn that the elected prosecutor in a county of more than 800,000 people is a part-timer.

“It’s certainly anomalous,” he says. “If you go back to a rural county, where a district attorney is a part-time job that only takes one or two days a week, it’s out of sheer necessity. The guy works at his other practice in order to live.

“Move to the 21st century into an urban county like where Cincinnati is located, and that’s a wholly obsolete rule,” he says. “In most states, you can’t do that. It’s a full-time job.”

That’s how Alan Triggs looks at it. Triggs is the Democratic challenger for Deters’ office. He says Hamilton County is too large for a part-time prosecutor. 

“If the person is not willing to be fully dedicated to the job and people he serves, then he should relinquish the position to someone who is,” Triggs says. “The question becomes, who is actually running the office when he is not there? That is not the person Hamilton County residents elected to represent them. Criminals work full-time and so should the prosecutor.”

Deters’ termination from the Chesley firm and his loss of $200,000 in annual income had a silver lining. Melissa Deters filed for divorce in 2013, citing incompatibility. Going by Joe Deters’ compensation at the time, Judge Linton Lewis set monthly alimony at $8,000, child support at $1,677. 

But in his September 2015 final decree based on Joe Deters’ lower income, Lewis set Deters’ total obligation at $2,097 a month. Court papers show no sign of any compensation from Eric Deters’ firm. What was left of the $990,000 lawsuit settlement check, after taxes, credit card payoffs and other expenses, was split evenly. © 

CONTACT JAMES MCNAIR: [email protected] / @JMacNews on Twitter / 513-665-4700 x. 142