Wednesday, March 03, 1999

Attorney general gives school funding case to ex-aide

He'll make 65% more than he did as state employee

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Attorney General Betty Montgomery is awarding a 65 percent pay raise to a former top aide chosen to handle the latest appeal in Ohio's school funding case.

        Now a lawyer in private practice, Jeffrey Sutton will be paid $95 an hour to lead the state's appeal of a judge's ruling that declared the new school funding system inadequate and unconstitutional.

        Mr. Sutton earned $57.41 an hour as a state employee when he defended the system last summer before Judge Linton Lewis of Perry County Common Pleas Court.

        On Friday, Judge Lewis ruled that state lawmakers must start over. The state plans to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.

        “Jeff already has put hundreds of hours into this immensely complicated case,” said Christopher Davey, Ms. Montgomery's spokesman. “Any hour he is working for us is an hour he isn't making a much more lucrative hourly rate with private clients.”

        Ms. Montgomery turned to her former top aide this week after Edward B. Foley, a lawyer who replaced Mr. Sutton as state solicitor, recused himself from the case.

        Mr. Foley stepped aside to avoid a conflict of interest. While teaching law at Ohio State University in 1996, he filed court documents on behalf of a group of educators who supported school districts behind the lawsuit. “Our interest in this case stems from our concern that underfunded schools cannot provide for students the educational experience democratic citizenship requires,” Mr. Foley's court brief said.

        By contrast, Mr. Sutton has been a vocal defender of changes enacted by state lawmakers to comply with an Ohio Supreme Court order to fix the school funding system.

        During his opening remarks before Judge Lewis in August, Mr. Sutton said Karl Marx, co-author of the Communist Manifesto, could not have devised a fairer method to narrow the gap between rich and poor schools.

        Mr. Sutton could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

        His “special counsel” contract with Ohio will add anoth er round of costs in a legal battle that has dragged on since 1991.

        The state already has spent $1.4 million on outside lawyers and thousands more on its own lawyers working on the case, Mr. Davey said.

        Judge Lewis ruled last week the state also must pick up the tab for lawyers representing school districts behind the lawsuit. The Ohio Supreme Court has awarded the school lawyers $1.4 million for work completed before the high court issued its March 1997 ruling.


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