Yes, indeed, that was Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters on the radio extolling the virtues of Ford motor vehicles. Why is an elected official shilling for a for-profit company and mentioning the title of his public office to do so? As it turns out, it's legal but uncommon — and somewhat tacky.
The Ohio Supreme Court oversees standards for lawyers and judges in the state through its Rules of Professional Conduct, which were most recently updated Feb. 1. Although court personnel won't answer questions about specific issues or lawyers, they respond to questions about general situations and guidelines. Asked if there are any rules regulating whether lawyers who hold elective office can do radio or TV commercials, an Ohio Supreme Court spokesman replied that only judges are specifically barred from lending the credibility of his or her office to endorse a commercial product or service.
"There is no explicit provision in the rules of professional responsibility that prohibits an elected official, other than a judge," said spokesman Chris Davey.
In his experience with the court, Davey added, he's unaware of any Ohio county prosecutor making a commercial for a private firm and hadn't been asked the question before.
Local lawyers contacted by CityBeat said they weren't aware of the Deters ad and called it unseemly. But they didn't want their names used for fear of professional reprisal, they said.
Deters probably doesn't need any extra cash outside his prosecutor's salary. He is paid $120,085 annually, according to county budget officials. Whether he got paid for the commercial or was doing it as some form of public service or favor isn't clear. He declined comment.
"Mr. Deters has no comment," said Bill Ranaghan, spokesman for the prosecutor's office, in a voice mail message. "Hopefully, that responds to your question. Thanks."
Deters isn't alone when it comes to public figures taking to the airwaves on behalf of automobile dealers. When Cincinnati Police Officer Keith Fangman was president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, he used to do similar commercials — but his were written in the context of a tribute to local police officers. More important, Fangman wasn't elected to a public office and didn't have to comply with professional rules overseen by an independent agency.
Bigger, More Often, but Any Good?
State Sen. Eric Kearney (D-Avondale) last week issued a press release saying he was "side-by-side" with Gov. Ted Strickland when House Bill 190 was signed into law. The bill, among other things, expands background checks for Ohio teachers. Instead of an Ohio-only criminal background check, teachers will now be subjected to a national FBI background check upon hiring and every five years after that.
While Kearney, along with almost every other politician, touts his concern for the "safety of our children," there's nothing in the press release that mentions funding for the background checks. Nor is there any information about how reliable the checks are. Who is going to pay for these checks? How frequently are errors found in these checks?
In an era of fear and paranoia about evil people lurking unseen in the bushes and in suits that might potentially some day hurt a child, standing up for the innocent takes on a new level of urgency. But what steps are being taken to ensure these extra measures, such as background checks, actually accomplish what they're designed to do? Like the draconian new sex-offender registration laws, which Kearney also supported, politicians find it easy to back simplistic solutions without evidence that they actually accomplish their intended goals.
A background check is becoming a universal response to "preventing crime" when nobody can prevent crime. In and of itself a background check might catch a few people, but what is the value of it without education and leadership in the area of personal safety?
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