October 24, 2014

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Lorain councilman suggests conflict of interest with law firm

LORAIN — Lorain City Councilman Dennis Flores has raised concerns about whether there’s a conflict of interest for the law firm Mayor Chase Ritenauer and Law Director Pat Riley want to hire to try to recover money the city spent on deals tainted by public corruption.

In a letter to the rest of Council, Flores, D-2nd Ward, wrote that the firm of Jeffries, Kube, Forrest and Monteleone previously sued both the city of Lorain and Lorain Schools.

He also pointed out that a lawyer with the Cleveland firm represented Riley during a 2009 dispute over whether he should be allowed to remain on the ballot because paperwork naming him the Democratic candidate for the law director’s job couldn’t be found at the Lorain County Board of Elections.

Riley replaced former Law Director Mark Provenza, who resigned in March 2009 after he violated the conditions of his probation for a DUI arrest the previous year.

The Ohio Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Riley’s name could remain on the ballot as a candidate to serve out the remainder of Provenza’s term.

“I don’t think it’s right there’s a close relationship between Riley and the law firm,” Flores said.

Riley, also a Democrat, said he disagreed with Flores’ reasoning and insisted there was no conflict. He pointed out that before he became law director he too had sued the city.

He said the Jeffries law firm has the expertise to do what the city wants, which is examining the contracts with various entities to determine if a lawsuit is necessary to recover misspent taxpayer money.

“To suggest that something’s not right about this is wrong,” he said.

Ritenauer said he also takes issue with Flores’ argument. He said the city actually sought out other law firms to do the work and two firms, Jeffries and Avon-based Wickens, Herzer, Panza, Cook and Batista, presented proposals to the city.

The idea, he said, was to get the best deal for the city by spurring competition. In the end, Ritenauer said he, not Riley, decided on Jeffries.

Ritenauer questioned why Flores objects so strenuously to hiring the law firm.

Flores and Councilwoman Anne Molnar, D-at large, blocked Council from approving paying up to $30,000 to the law firm during an Oct. 2 Council meeting. The issue will be up for a second reading next Monday.

“The question is why isn’t he protecting taxpayers’ money and trying to get some of it back?” Ritenauer said.

The mayor said that depending on what Jeffries discovers during its investigation, the city could end up finding it can pursue $2 million or more in funds the city spent on projects that have fallen under scrutiny either by federal investigators or a probe being run by Lorain police and county Prosecutor Dennis Will’s office.

Flores, however, argued that Riley and his staff should be the ones who conduct the review and pursue litigation if it comes to that.

“We’re going to hear, and we’ve heard before, that his office doesn’t have the staff or expertise and that’s the reasoning behind hiring an outside legal firm,” Flores said.

Riley said the legal work Jeffries would take on is highly complex and will likely involve challenging Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, one of the most powerful law firms in the state. Vorys did about $1.4 million worth of legal work for the city up until 2010, Lorain Auditor Ron Mantini said.

The city has raised questioned about the propriety of some of those expenditures because one of the firm’s former attorneys, Anthony Calabrese III, is facing federal corruption charges connected to a consulting contract once held by former Lorain Community Development Director Sandy Prudoff, who is now serving a two-year federal prison sentence.

“It can’t be done by a short-staffed local law department,” Riley said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.