COLUMBUS -- The state Ethics Commission is investigating whether an Ohio State University trustee who is also a federal judge is violating ethics laws by teaching at the university's law school.
At issue is whether the part-time classes that trustee and judge Algenon Marbley has taught since 2000 run afoul of laws preventing trustees from having an interest in contracts approved by boards they sit on.
Ohio State, which brought the question to the Ethics Commission last year, maintains Marbley meets a four-fold test under state law allowing the arrangement. That includes Marbley's background as a judge and past partner in a large, national law firm and the mentoring and nurturing opportunities he brings as one of only a few black federal judges in Ohio.
"Judge Marbley brings distinctive talent and experience to the classroom," Christopher Culley, Ohio State general counsel, wrote in a November request to the ethics commission.
The university and Marbley's attorney, Larry James, also argue that the arrangement complies with the law because Marbley was teaching the classes a full seven years before he was appointed trustee in 2007 and because he never voted on his compensation, which was set before he became trustee.
Marbley has disclosed being an Ohio State trustee and law professor in required federal filings, which James also argues puts him in compliance with Ohio ethics laws.
Marbley notes that he and the university self-reported the issue. He is teaching for free during the investigation.
"I've been providing the service for seven years before I went onto the board, and everyone knew it," he said.
The commission previously issued opinions that said trustees at Kent State and the University of Toledo were prohibited from holding paid teaching positions. Those opinions were advisory and not part of an investigation.
Ohio State asked only for a commission opinion, but the panel launched an investigation in February because the potential conflict had already occurred.
"This question for us is not about the quality of the instruction but rather the legality of the contract," said commission Director Paul Nick.
Another issue for the commission is a 2009 advisory opinion for federal judges advising that judges should not serve as trustees at public universities. But James said that opinion, which is only a recommendation, is not within the ethics commission's jurisdiction.
"Judge Marbley has not engaged in any conduct that is adverse to or in conflict with his sworn duties as a United States Judge," James said in a March 14 letter to the commission.
The commission is also investigating any potential conflict of interest with the university's hiring of Marbley's daughter-in-law while he served as trustee. Marbley says he wasn't aware she'd been hired until after she got the job.
Marbley was appointed federal judge by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.