COLUMBUS -- Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's selection process for hiring outside law firms has gone essentially undocumented, an Associated Press review has found.
The firms sought lucrative special-counsel assignments in the area of securities fraud, and state documents laid out how DeWine, a Republican officeholder, would appoint a committee to vet the firms. The documents were requests for the firms to show their qualifications for the assignments, and they said that firms would be picked based on specific criteria, including experience, a strong track record and professionalism.
But DeWine's office can provide little written evidence the selection committee completed its work. A public records request by the AP turned up no judges' notes, scoring sheets, email exchanges on firms' qualifications or recommendations made to DeWine.
The finding comes as DeWine's office has touted the transparency and rigor of his selection process amid election-year criticism that Ohio's system for picking outside law firms lacks adequate safeguards against being used as a political fundraising tool.
DeWine's chief aide, First Assistant Attorney General Mary Mertz, said top staffers vetted the winning firms through interviews and discussions and then shared their recommendations verbally with DeWine.
Mertz said judging forms and scoring sheets are generally seen with a traditional bid process, whereas selecting qualified law firms is more subjective.
"I don't think you'd find anybody out there who's going to select a lawyer solely on what their hourly rate's going to be, nor do I think you should," she said.
As Ohio's top lawyer, DeWine -- like his predecessors in the job -- selects a panel of law firms experienced in securities fraud to advise him on what cases to pursue. Firms are placed on either an Ohio or national panel and may be tapped, or not, at any point during the contract's duration.
Michael Hall, DeWine's director of outside counsel, developed a judging sheet for the process in 2011. Hall told Mertz in an April 2011 email that he hesitated to distribute it.
"I did not share with the other members of the committee because I didn't want it used as a list of criteria for making our decisions," he wrote. Hall eventually did distribute the form, but no completed copies exist. Mertz said some, but not all, of the reviewers had Hall's form in front of them as a guide while interviewing firms.
Mertz said DeWine's team initially adopted a selection process set up by his predecessor, Democrat Richard Cordray, but it was effectively sidelined beginning in 2012.
"The first year, we needed to interview all the firms because we didn't know them," she said. "The second year, we didn't need to."
Hall said it proved quicker and more effective not to use a committee, though that approach was still advertised in solicitations for firms in 2012 and 2013. And the lack of documentation runs counter to DeWine's public statements on the subject.
"We pick lawyers based on their qualifications. Everything is transparent," DeWine told reporters this year. He added, "Anyone can find out anything about the contracts that we have."
Securities fraud involves areas such as deceptive business practices, stock manipulation, embezzlement and insider trading. Landing the work can mean tens of millions of dollars to private law firms, though Ohio's filed only one such lawsuit under DeWine.
DeWine's Democratic rival, Cincinnati lawyer David Pepper, says he would reform the special counsel selection process if elected. He says donations to state parties by law firms seeking state work should be capped at $1,000, just like donations to the attorney general are in such instances.
Firms can circumvent limits by donating in this manner. One contender for special counsel work, Dayton-based Dyer, Garafolo, Mann & Schultz, was rejected in 2011, then submitted virtually the same application a year later after donating $25,000 to the Ohio Republican Party and was picked. This April, a winning firm from 2012, New York City-based Kaplan Fox, donated $50,000 to the party.
"Mr. DeWine is engaged in a major pay-to-play scheme to award lucrative legal work," said Pepper campaign spokesman Peter Koltak. "And the lack of any documentation supporting these selections is one more red flag on this corrupt process."
DeWine spokeswoman Lisa Hackley said there's no correlation between special counsel contracts and donations. Hall agreed: "How would we know that (firms gave)? We don't look at campaign finance reports."