COLUMBUS -- Dem-ocratic attorney general hopeful David Pepper said he would require increased disclosures and block campaign contributions from firms during contract considerations, among other changes he would make to ensure law firms are selected to conduct state business for their abilities and not how much they contributed to candidates.
The former Hamilton County commissioner outlined a five-point plan Monday in Columbus in response to "pay-to-play" allegations against incumbent Republican Mike DeWine stemming from a Dayton Daily News article describing law firms that received potentially lucrative state contracts after contributing to DeWine's campaign.
"The level of what we're seeing here is unlike any other," Pepper said. "... This is much deeper, much more problematic. I'm not here saying lawyers shouldn't give to people running for attorney general. ... The onus is on the office-holder, the attorney general, to show a process and to run a process that shows no matter who gave ... that the process of deciding is totally independent of who gave."
But DeWine fired back Monday, countering such accusations and saying law firms selected for state contracts since he's been in office were picked based on their qualifications, not their political donations.
"It's not true," he said. "We pick lawyers based on their qualifications. Everything is transparent. Every campaign contribution I get is disclosed, and every contract we let is disclosed."
He added, "There's no substitute for transparency. ... We put everything out there. We follow the law."
Pepper stopped short of alleging DeWine broke the law, but he said better controls should be instituted to ensure law firms aren't receiving favorable consideration based on their campaign contributions.
"I do think there are a lot of red flags here... the lack of any standards, the timing, the sheer amount of money, the correlation of who gives and who receives work...," he said.
Pepper said, if elected, he would provide more publicly accessible information about law firms that receive state contracts, institute better ways to determine how well those firms are performing and create an independent panel to review attorneys in advance of selections.
He would also bar fund-raising solicitations and contributions while contracts are being considered and require law firms to make full public disclosures of money they have contributed to candidate campaigns.
Catherine Turcer, policy analyst at Common Cause Ohio, supports increased disclosure on such campaign contributions.
She said the situation could be easily fixed if those bidding for state contracts were required to note contributions they had made.
But Turcer also acknowledged that, while pay-to-play accusations are frequently lofted during political campaigns, it's more difficult to prove laws were broken.
"It sure looks like those contributions were earmarked," she said. "Were they in fact earmarked and can we prove they're earmarked? Probably not. ... We have a long history of things being done with a wink and a nudge, and part of it is we can't prove it."
But DeWine said Pepper's disclosure proposal is problematic, effectively increasing connections between a public office making contract decisions and a political campaign.
"Why in the world would anyone think it was a good idea to have literally in front of him information about how much that person gave (to a campaign)?" he asked.
DeWine said law firms that receive state contracts are selected for their areas of expertise and their qualifications. He questioned whether his Democratic challenger really understood the process or the number of times public agencies turn to the attorney general's office for outside counsel.
"We have a great deal of transparency in what we do," DeWine said. "Anyone can find out anything about the contracts that we have, as The Dayton Daily News did."
He added of Pepper, "He probably is the most unqualified person to run for attorney general in my lifetime. He's never prosecuted a case, has precious little if any actual courtroom experience. It's hard for me to understand even why he's running with that kind of background."