For a moment this summer, it looked as though the Me Too reckoning might embroil the high-stakes race for Ohio governor.
Mike DeWine, the attorney general and Republican nominee to replace Gov. John Kasich, had placed a law firm with deep ties to Republicans in charge of investigating sexual harassment claims against a longtime GOP power broker. It was exactly the kind of cronyism that has lately attracted greater scrutiny. The lawmaker had even spent decades working for the firm.
So far, DeWine, who is in a close race to preserve Republicans’ total grip on Ohio politics, has weathered the scandal. But a few have argued it’s part of a pattern: DeWine and his office have been accused twice before of intervening in sexual harassment investigations that implicated people close to him.
In 2013, DeWine inserted himself into the sexual harassment investigation of a friend and senior official in his office, by forcing the state’s investigator to disclose the identity of a confidential source in the probe. He then personally recommended that a local prosecutor bring a dubious criminal charge against the investigator, who had been reluctant to reveal the source’s name. The prosecutor, a fellow Republican, refused.
Then, in 2014, in a separate investigation, DeWine’s office made the unusual move of overturning a report that faulted a supervisor in DeWine’s office for ignoring complaints about sexual harassment.
In other words, the latest scandal is far from the first time DeWine has appeared to taint an investigation. It’s not even the first case of DeWine appearing to assist a political ally or friend.
Here’s the history.
A Friend Of Mike’s
Five years ago, DeWine thrust himself into the middle of a sexual harassment investigation involving a senior member of his agency, described in the investigative documents as DeWine’s friend and a member of his “kitchen cabinet.” The inquiry began after a law student interning with the attorney general’s office rejected a job offer there, saying DeWine’s friend, who was also friendly with her family, had been sexually inappropriate with her outside of work.
The experience shook her badly enough that she got counseling and didn’t feel comfortable working in the attorney general’s office anymore, she said, according to state records.
An employee in the attorney general’s office passed the complaint along to a prosecutor and the state’s equal employment watchdog. DeWine, who had never interacted with the intern, nonetheless made the unusual move of asking to be interviewed by the equal employment investigator.
DeWine used the interview to pressure the investigator, Kristine Cadek, into revealing the confidential identity of a person who had promised Cadek corroborating evidence for the intern’s story. (This is according to Cadek’s interview notes, which DeWine signed to certify they were accurate.) Cadek refused, citing the potential for retaliation, before ultimately giving in.
DeWine then spoke directly to the confidential informant. A few days later, the investigator ended the probe, leading to questions about whether DeWine’s interference was the cause.
“It was totally inappropriate, the way that he behaved,” said Carolyn Casper, the president of the Ohio chapter of the National Organization for Women, a progressive women’s rights group. “That is the kind of move that can taint an investigation and intimidate future victims. … It suggests there’s a culture in that office to carry out DeWine’s personal agenda.”
DeWine then recommended that a local prosecutor charge Cadek with a felony. Cadek’s crime, DeWine said, was using a photo of the intern from a state database for criminal investigators, even though her investigation was an administrative one.
Cadek was allowed to name the intern in her interviews, and she showed the photo to jog peoples’ memories. The prosecutor ultimately declined to prosecute because Cadek had inflicted “no actual harm.”
DeWine’s office defended the prosecution referral by saying it had a duty to be protective of the database.
As for DeWine’s conversation with the confidential informant, a spokesman for his office, Dan Tierney, said the investigation was already coming to an end. “[DeWine] wanted to make sure every resource of the office had been used to determine if our policies had been violated” by someone working there, he said. “That’s why he did it. … Ultimately, the public holds the officeholder accountable for the actions that take place in his office.”
The intern eventually downplayed her original claims and did not participate in the equal employment investigation or criminal probe, and so neither investigation was able to identify a perpetrator.
A Curious Do-over
Just one year later, DeWine’s office appeared to be interfering with another sexual harassment probe.
That incident revolved around sexist comments made by Tim Miller, an assistant attorney general in DeWine’s office. In a March 2013 job review, Miller told a legal secretary, “You will do your job, or you will be smacked” and mimed a slap. In June, Miller told her: “You know, there is nothing more fun than smacking a woman. That is, except for punching them.”
Miller received a five-day working suspension and a warning that future incidents could lead to his firing. A supervisor in the same office, Timothy Lecklider, also received a reprimand after state investigators concluded that Lecklider had learned about Miller’s comment in the spring but failed to report it. Lecklider was obligated to pass on reports like that to human resources or the equal employment division, but he didn’t report any misconduct until learning about the second remark in June, investigators said.
That’s when DeWine’s office gave Lecklider an unusual reprieve: a second investigation. This reinvestigation said there wasn’t enough evidence to establish that Lecklider received that first complaint in the spring. DeWine’s office said the reinvestigation was part of its normal due process procedures. According to news reports from the time, it was the first time such findings had been overturned in five years.
Tierney said the existence of the second investigation was overblown, and merely a case of an employee taking advantage of his right to due process.
In the end, neither inquiry was a flattering portrait of DeWine’s office. Employees claimed that Miller, who still works in DeWine’s office, made inappropriate comments on a weekly basis. Lecklider defended himself by saying he didn’t want the office to become “a no-fun zone.”
“We’ve seen how this kind of behavior continues, and then it seems to become acceptable behavior,” said Casper, the NOW president. “As long as we have the current cast of characters, I don’t know how all this is ever going to change.”
Lecklider did not respond to a request for comment, and Tierney declined to comment on Miller’s behalf.
“These are issues that have been brought to light for political hay in election years, selectively and in the worst light possible,” he said.
The Current Scandal
DeWine won his party’s nomination for governor easily in May. He is now virtually tied in the polls with Democrat Richard Cordray, the former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The latest scandal arose because of remarks that Rep. Bill Seitz, a longtime Republican power broker, made at a January going-away party for another lawmaker.
Seitz made light of a representative who had resigned over claims he propositioned female staff, saying that lawmaker’s theme music ought to have been Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Seitz also joked that a former female colleague “wore a tinfoil” hat and called a sitting female legislator a conspiracy theorist.
He made these remarks one week after the House completed mandatory workplace harassment training in reaction to the Me Too movement.
After one of the women complained, DeWine approved up to $12,000 to hire Taft Stettinius & Hollister, Seitz’s law firm of nearly 40 years, to investigate Seitz. The firm interviewed Seitz and just two other people before finding he hadn’t violated the House’s harassment policy. While the probe was still alive, the law firm’s political action committee gave Seitz a $1,000 donation.
Good government groups were outraged.
“It’s ludicrous,” said Catherine Turcer, the executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “The attorney general had an obligation to make sure that the firm they selected to investigate is not going to turn a blind eye. If you wanted an investigation to go away quickly, what would you want to do? You would want your buddies to investigate, and that’s exactly what happened here.”
In response to calls for a new investigation from groups like Common Cause, lawmakers, and four of Ohio’s largest newspapers, DeWine’s office said that decision is up to the legislature. It blamed the law firm for the appearance of cronyism, saying it was Taft’s job to flag any potential conflicts of interest.
“Our office is displeased that Taft did not disclose those potential conflicts to us,” Tierney said.
Seitz, though, claimed members of DeWine’s staff were aware of Seitz’ longtime ties to the law firm ― something DeWine’s office denies. “None of them thought it was a conflict at all,” Seitz said.