Thursday, February 19, 2004

Q&A: Warren County Prosecutor

The March 2 Republican primary for Warren County prosecutor features a heated race between David Fornshell of Lebanon, who is Blue Ash city prosecutor and works for a downtown Cincinnati law firm, and incumbent Rachel Hutzel of Lebanon, a longtime assistant Warren County prosecutor chosen 57 to 54 over Fornshell by the county party's central committee last year to replace Tim Oliver, who was appointed Warren County Domestic Relations judge. Warren County is a high-growth area, and it faces challenges in dealing with the more complex, more serious crime that such growth often brings. Here are excerpts from our recent question-and-answer session with the candidates.

Q. Tell us why you feel Warren County voters should support you for this position.

Rachel Hutzel: I'm asking to stay in the position I was appointed to last year. I had been in the Warren County prosecutor's office for 10 years previously, including two years as chief assistant prosecutor. I've been able to make some significant improvements and do some pretty innovative things to help meet the needs of law enforcement and the community.

Most significant since I have been in office I started a cyber-crimes task force. We've increased specialized focus on domestic violence and child abuse, and encouraged community input. In collections, we've seen a 10 percent increase in property tax collections, and have tripled drug fines and forfeitures.

David Fornshell: I wouldn't run if I didn't think I'd be an improvement over what's going on in the office. I have superior experience as a criminal trial lawyer. There's no comparison in the number of cases I've done as opposed to Ms. Hutzel. Warren County residents want experience in the courtroom. And they want someone who won't back off the tough cases. I'm not going to punt those. I'm not afraid to lose a case. My job is not to guess whether ultimately we'll win it, but to determine if there is sufficient evidence to try the case.

From my perspective, Warren County is tired of offices going by appointment to whoever has been waiting in the wings the longest. It's almost a sense of entitlement. Experience in that office is a consideration, but not the consideration.

There are issues with the prosecutor's office, namely its complete lack of responsiveness to the needs of agencies in the county. That's the No. 1 complaint I hear. People in Warren County governments are extremely critical. When they submit requests for legal opinions, it's taking months to get a response from her office. With her committees and task forces, she is acting as prosecutor by press release. This is a legitimate concern.

Q. Tell us more about your qualifications.

Hutzel: I've tried many, many criminal cases, including felonies. His raw number of cases may be more. But Blue Ash mayor's court cannot do jury trials. It isn't a court of record. Our bread and butter is felonies. I've tried one-quarter of all the county's murder trials in the past 11 years. We have 17,000 cases a year; 1,000 of those are felonies.

I'm involved daily in decisions over what to prosecute, but I'm not trying to punt the easy cases. I sent murder defendant Rocky Barton to death row. I've been successful in many child abuse and child porn cases.

My budget is set by the county commission. I run an office that has 75 employees, including 17 lawyers, doing 17,000 cases a year. Only three lawyers are budgeted by the commissioners for civil work, employee law, political entities. It's a huge responsibility. I know every aspect of that office. I've been endorsed by the FOP, the commissioners, and all the elected county officials.

Fornshell: As far as the mayor's court goes, the more serious cases go downtown. I try jury trials there. They involve felonies more often than not. The vast majority of cases she prosecuted were misdemeanors.

As for the office's responsiveness, I want to bring the environment of the business world to the prosecutor's office. I have spent the majority of my time in the private sector.

As for her endorsements, many of those officials were afraid not to. Law enforcement officers are supporting me, and there are township trustees working for me.

I'm running against the good old boy system in Warren County. I want to challenge the status quo, the system in which the party central committee appoints replacements in the case of resignation. The committee takes away the rights of the voters to decide who their elected officials are. I'm challenging that.

Hutzel: Nobody has been forced to endorse me. I'm a hard worker, a 24/7, Type-A personality. And in case you hadn't noticed, as a woman in elected office, I'm not a part of the good old boy network.

Q. What do you think will be the office's top priorities in the next few years?

Fornshell: Population growth is going to dominate everything. It won't necessarily mean just an expansion of violent crime, but an increase in the number of all crimes. That means you really will need somebody efficient in the prosecutor's office. You don't have enough attorneys? Find ways to do the job. Find ways to be efficient. It's not going to happen from the inside out. The office needs a fresh set of eyes. It needs someone to come in with private sector approach.

Child support is a huge issue. Warren County is No.1 in dollars spent on collections.

The rumor has been going around unfairly that I'll be "cleaning house" in the prosecutor's office if I'm elected. That's not true. But I will take a fresh look at everything.

Another top priority will be aggressive enforcement of felony cases. The office should not be afraid to take tough cases.

Hutzel: But on some cases, it's unethical to prosecute someone unless we feel there's evidence to bring the charge.

On child support, we are top in state, spending $1 to collect every $13. The state average is $1 to collect $6. Our performance is very good, but it can be improved.

The rise in population will affect violent crime, and violent crime is what the community sees as the most pressing duty of our office. He simply does not have the experience. Another key area will be the explosion of cyber-crime, with child pornography, drug cases and sex crimes.

We have to be innovative.

Fornshell: As for having the experience, nothing is any more difficult than the civil cases I have litigated. Am I able to handle complex, high-stakes cases? Yes. I do that almost on a daily basis.

Q. Anything else you would like to add to summarize?

Fornshell: Here are the issues. Do voters deserve an experienced trial attorney, both civil and criminal? The civil side is a important function of the job. Law enforcement officers are supporting me. The office isn't being helped by the bureaucracies she's creating. The voters deserve somebody from outside to take a fresh look. And it's not up to party officials to decide who are the county's elected officials.

Hutzel: Civil experience does not remotely prepare you to work in this office. As for handling civil cases, our insurance company provides counsel when we're sued. As an assistant, I was being prepared to become the prosecutor. I don't think that entitles me to the job. It just prepares me for the job.

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