Taft law firm hit with complaint for alleged Ohio conflict

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Following its investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct by a powerful Ohio state legislator, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP is now the subject of a grievance filed with the Ohio Supreme Court for failing to disclose that the legislator had previously worked for the law firm for more than 30 years until 2014.

The Virginia-based watchdog group Checks and Balances Project submitted the grievance June 21, asserting Taft violated Ohio Supreme Court’s Rule of Professional Conduct prohibiting conflict of interest.

Taft was appointed by the office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in February to investigate a sexual harassment complaint against Rep. Bill Seitz, Republican and majority leader in the Ohio House of Representatives. In its report to the Attorney General on April 25, the law firm cleared Seitz, finding that while his comments made at a retirement party were inappropriate, he did not violate the Ohio House's anti-harassment policy.

Since the grievance was filed, ProgressOhio, a nonprofit advocating progressive causes, has come forward with documentation indicating Taft’s political action committee, which has the same Cincinnati address as the law firm, donated $1,000 to Seitz’s reelection campaign while the investigation was ongoing.

“I’ve never heard of a situation where the investigators give $1,000 to the person they’re investigating,” said Scott Peterson, executive director of the Checks and Balances Project.

Checks and Balances and ProgressOhio are calling for a new investigation of the representative as well as for guidelines and policies to be put in place to ensure such a situation does not arise again.

“Our hope is that they do a legitimate investigation of the representative and this complaint,” Peterson said.

Taft declined to comment on the grievance or donation. In a statement, the law firm said, “Our general policy is to refrain from commenting about filed requests or pending matters. Therefore, we are unable to comment at this time.”

Taft traces its origins to the Buckeye State and opened its Indianapolis office when it merged with the Sommer Barnard practice in 2008. Taft is the fourth-largest law firm in the city, with about 150 local attorneys, according to Indianapolis Business Journal research.

The complaint was made against Seitz after a roast in January 2018 for chief of staff Mike Dittoe. According to the report from the investigation, Seitz said he made jokes about two women representatives and about former Sen. Cliff Hite, who resigned in October 2017 and admitted to acting inappropriately toward a female state employee. Seitz told the Taft attorneys he referenced the Marvin Gaye song, “Let’s Get it On,” when speaking of Hite and described some representatives as wearing a “tin foil hat,” as an allusion to someone believing in conspiracy theories.

Seitz said he had been drinking at the party but was not intoxicated.

Taft partner Janica Pierce Tucker and senior associate Carolyn Davis in the firm’s Columbus, Ohio, office conducted the investigation. In the grievance complaint, Peterson faulted the investigators for only interviewing three people, including Seitz, when more than 100 people attended the retirement party.

“Despite the complainant’s harrowing description of sexual harassment in the House, no female staffers were interviewed, nor was State Rep. Kristina Roegner, who the Dayton Daily News reported to have walked out of the event,” Peterson wrote.  

The sexual harassment complaint was filed anonymously by a woman who did not attend the party. When the investigators discovered the identity of the female complainant, they attempted to interview her, but she declined to speak. Pierce Tucker and Davis noted in their report that the complaint may have been politically motivated, although they point out that the documentation alone did not support such a finding.

Taft has been requested by the Ohio House of Representatives to do internal employee investigations six times since July 1, 2017, according to Dan Tierney, spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General. In the Buckeye state, a state agency, such as the House, would ask for a particular outside counsel, then the Attorney General would make the official appointment.

Normally, Tierney said, the law firms have the responsibility of checking their files and client lists for conflicts of interest before agreeing to represent a state agency. Taft, he said, did not inform the Attorney General of its connection to the elected official being investigated.

“We’re displeased they did not make us aware of the situation regarding Rep. Seitz,” Tierney said.

For the investigation, Taft has billed to date $7,962.30, Tierney said. The firm charged a rate of $200 per hour and noted that work done by Pierce Tucker typically commands a rate of $315 per hour.

Tyler Dillon of ProgressOhio believes even if Taft is found to have violated the rule of professional conduct, the sanction would mostly be a monetary fine. That is why the organization is focused on getting a new look into Seitz’s actions.

“We don’t think the investigation was done in good faith,” Dillon said. “If anything, the conflict shows that.”

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