LAGRANGE — The law firm recently hired by the Rural Lorain County Water Authority is contemplating a lawsuit against a board member who opposed its hiring.
The Rural Water board voted at its November meeting to hire the law firm O’Toole, McLaughlin, Dooley & Pecora, whose lawyers had previously represented the board during a contentious fight over the removal of Pittsfield Township Trustee Mark McConnell from the board in 2013. A county judge later ruled the removal was illegal.
Before the 12-11 vote to rehire attorney Dennis O’Toole and his firm at the authority’s November meeting, McConnell told the board O’Toole’s firm gave bad legal advice about his removal that put five of the board members who supported McConnell’s ouster in a “vulnerable position.”
“I thoroughly felt that it was an absolute disgrace an incompetent attorney allowed these individuals to get into this position,” McConnell said, according to recording of the meeting obtained by The Chronicle-Telegram.
After the November meeting, O’Toole’s law firm was told about McConnell’s comments and at a meeting earlier this month, Rural Water’s general manager, Tim Mahoney, read a statement from the law firm.
“The audio recording was transcribed and the comments regarding the inappropriateness of the firm’s prior work for RLCWA were categorically false and defamatory,” the statement said. “They understand that the comments do not reflect the views of the RLCWA board. The firm has retained legal counsel regarding those individuals who engaged in malicious and defamatory conduct at the last meeting.”
McConnell said after he was reinstated to the board, Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Gerald Innes told him it would be “a slam dunk” to sue those five board members for slander. Innes declined to discuss his conversations with McConnell, citing attorney-client privilege.
“The second thing (Innes) said was that it is illegal in the state of Ohio to use public funds to attack a private individual, so all this money that Rural Water spent and O’Toole and company ended up in their pocket was making these five individuals — two former board members, three present ones — do illegal things. They were misappropriating public funds,” McConnell said.
A few months later, in 2014, McConnell said he got a phone call “out of the blue” from Arvin Clar, an agent with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
McConnell said his recollection was that BCI was considering pursuing charges against other board members for allegedly “misappropriating public money” by going after him. He said he ultimately decided against signing any charges because he didn’t want to put his family through additional court proceedings.
However, BCI spokeswoman Dorcas Jones said no formal investigation was ever opened and McConnell was never asked to sign any charges.
“This is not something we do,” Jones said. “If we do conduct an investigation, we forward the information to the prosecutor, who then makes decisions based upon that information.”
Jones said there was a meeting between McConnell and Clar on April 4, 2014, but she described it as “an information seeking” meeting that came after Lorain County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh mentioned what was happening at Rural Water to a BCI field agent during an unrelated event.
Jones said after Clar met with McConnell and deputies separately it was decided that there was not enough there to pursue an investigation. Additionally, she said BCI never received a formal request for an investigation from either the Sheriff’s Office or Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will, and without that BCI has no authority to proceed.
McConnell said at the November meeting he didn’t know the status of the investigation.
“Now, whether this case is still open, I don’t know, but that crap attorney advice that this organization received, he’s at home with $100,000 in his pocket (and there are) five past and present board members that could have been in court for the last two years with absolutely no defense because they signed the complaints and authorized the use of public money, and you’re trying to hire these guys back again,” McConnell said. “I definitely suggest that we do not accept this legal contract and we extend our existing contract until … we can find a law firm that has the integrity to give honest and reasonable legal advice to this organization as we should expect. This legal firm is not the one for us.”
Mahoney said he wasn’t concerned “at this time” about the statement he read at the December board meeting on O’Toole’s behalf.
“All I did was read a statement from the firm to the board,” Mahoney said in an interview.
O’Toole did not respond to several calls seeking comment. Several board members also declined to talk on the record about the situation.
O’Toole’s firm was the only law firm to properly complete the bid paperwork, according to Dale Rundle, who serves as president of the Rural Water board.
O’Toole’s firm resigned from working for Rural Water in February 2014 saying it didn’t want to work based on a monthly fee given the complexity of the legal issues facing the organization; the board voted to hire Fauver, Keyse-Walker & Donovan, which also represents The Chronicle-Telegram.
Fauver, Keyse-Walker & Donovan’s contract with Rural Water is up at the end of the year and the firm was among those that submitted faulty bids, Rundle said.
Rundle, who along with 11 other board members voted to again hire O’Toole, said he thinks McConnell shared the information with the board because of a personal vendetta against O’Toole because of the firm’s involvement in briefly ousting him from the board. Rundle said the O’Toole firm did exactly what the board directed the firm to do at the time, and doesn’t believe the firm gave anyone bad legal advice.
“To me, I believe it’s a personal thing,” Rundle said. “It’s an argument between two men.”
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