Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Commissioners criticize efforts in Bengals case



By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two Hamilton County commissioners accused the prosecutor's office Monday of trying to derail their effort to hire an out-of-town law firm to assess the county's case - if any - against the Bengals.

"The prosecutor's office has failed to represent our interest in this matter," Commissioner Phil Heimlich said. "They have not lived up to their statutory responsibility."

The rift is over Assistant Prosecutor Brian Hurley's April recommendation of a local law firm to investigate the matter. Heimlich and Commissioner Todd Portune want someone with no Cincinnati connections.

Prosecutor Mike Allen said he is setting up a meeting with commissioners to discuss their differences.

"The time has come for us to try to work the issues out," Allen said. "As far as I'm concerned, all the options are on the table, with one exception. My office has to stay involved."

Heimlich had threatened Monday to take advantage of a statute that allows commissioners to spend a limited amount of money on outside lawyers without the prosecutor's approval. Normally, the prosecutor's office helps hire and direct legal counsel.

Commissioners asked the prosecutor's office for an opinion last year on whether the county could sue the Bengals because of the team's poor record. The opinion was never made public, but Portune has taken a different tack in state and federal lawsuits against the Bengals and the National Football League. He alleges that they're illegally operating as a monopoly and the team misled the county about its finances.

"I do not know whether there are grounds to sue the Bengals ... but to simply let it go would not restore public trust," Heimlich said.

As commissioners neared a decision last week on what outside firm to hire, Commissioner John Dowlin raised the question of whether Portune has a conflict of interest. Hurley also raised the question in a June letter to commissioners.

Portune said his lawsuits shouldn't prevent him from voting on matters related to the Bengals because he filed them on behalf of the county and he does not stand to gain personally.

He has asked the Ohio Ethics Commission for an opinion, but that won't come before Sept. 10, ethics commission officials said Monday.

Heimlich said he probably doesn't have a second vote to hire an outside law firm if Portune is disqualified, but Dowlin, reached at a meeting out of state, said he hasn't made up his mind.

The county has also spent more than $1 million with law firm Ice Miller of Indianapolis in an attempt to recover some of the $51 million in cost overruns during construction of Paul Brown Stadium.

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E-mail candrews@enquirer.com




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