Deters-DeWine internship flap under review by secret judicial panel

Three undisclosed appellate judges will review the ethicality of DeWine's request for an internship for his son

A request for an investigation of Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine’s pursuit of a summer internship for a son in the office of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters is threading through the state’s judicial bureaucracy.

Ohio State Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-North Avondale, authored the complaint. CityBeat reported last month that Deters had given an $11-an-hour summer internship to Matt DeWine in response to an e-mail request from Pat DeWine, a Republican from Cincinnati. Deters also gave internships to another DeWine son and the sons of local Republican luminaries Alex Triantafilou and Charles “Chip” Gerhardt.

Thomas' grievance stems from DeWine’s April 23 e-mail, which was obtained by CityBeat through a public records request. In it, DeWine wrote, “Joe, can you find a spot in your internship program for my son Matt this summer? It would be a great experience for him. If you can, I would really appreciate it.”

The Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct forbids judges from taking gifts from people -- like Deters' prosecutors -- who have appeared, or are likely to appear, in their court. It instructs judges to urge family members to do the same. On the giving end of the favor, handing one of 29 summer internships to the son of a judge doesn’t alone put Deters in ethical hot water.

Thomas initially asked Melba Marsh, the presiding judge over Hamilton County’s Court of Common Pleas, to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the affair. Marsh, though, replied that she could make such an appointment only under circumstances outlined by the Ohio Supreme Court. The Deters-DeWine flap, she wrote to Thomas, wasn’t one of them.

Thomas sent his complaint to anyone whose job it is to confront misbehaving public officials. For Ohio judges, that would be the state Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

But that agency draws a line at Supreme Court justices. Following the high court’s rules, it forwarded the complaint to Donna Carr, the chief judge of the Ohio Courts of Appeal. Carr, of the Ninth District Court of Appeals in Akron, will appoint a panel of three appellate judges to review the complaint. If the panel finds “good cause,” it will appoint a “special disciplinary counsel” to investigate. Any licensed Ohio lawyer can fill that role.

Thomas says it makes sense to farm out the investigation of a Supreme Court justice to other judges.

“They are independently elected officials who understand judicial ethics,” he says. “I am pleased this matter is being reviewed. Most important to me is a fair and impartial investigation and that the laws are properly applied.”

What the process won’t be is transparent, unless DeWine opts to make it public. In July, a three-judge panel decided against proceeding with a complaint filed against Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy for speaking at an anti-abortion group’s fund-raiser. No explanation was given for the decision. The identities of the three judges were kept secret.

“Ohio’s secret process creates nettlesome doubts about the legitimacy of the review,” wrote the Columbus Dispatch in an editorial.

Thomas also sent a complaint against Deters to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. But because of unspecified “conflict of interest concerns,” the agency told Thomas that it had referred the complaint to the Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Conduct for further reassignment. That board sends such matters to the grievance committees of local bar associations. Thomas was notified that his complaint was assigned to the Columbus Bar Association on Sept. 1.

Deters, who has refused to talk to CityBeat, defended his hiring of Matt DeWine in an interview with WLW talk show host Bill Cunningham. Pat DeWine has said nothing publicly about the matter.

CONTACT JAMES McNAIR: [email protected], 513-914-2736 or @jmacnews on Twitter

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