Friday, April 2, 2004

Now Bengals lawsuit has Hamilton Co. suing itself



By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen sued his own clients Thursday.

He asked to join a lawsuit seeking to stop the Hamilton County commissioners from hiring Stanley Chesley to sue the Cincinnati Bengals and the National Football League.

Allen's move may be unprecedented in Ohio, where county prosecutors are independently elected but also serve as legal counsel to all county agencies.

"My obligation on this is to see that the law is followed," he said.

Commissioner Phil Heimlich's response: "Why doesn't the county prosecutor want the truth to come out?"

Allen's request was one of several legal maneuvers Thursday in an increasingly complicated tangle over whether the Bengals illegally used their pro football monopoly to force Hamilton County to build them a new stadium.

By the time Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000, the project cost $451 million - an amount shoppers will be paying off through a half-cent sales tax for decades.

Commissioner Todd Portune has long sought to make the Bengals renegotiate a stadium lease that he sees as too generous to the team, but his efforts gained new life in March when Heimlich voted with him to sue the NFL and its Cincinnati franchise.

According to Anderson Township Trustee Russ Jackson's taxpayer lawsuit, filed Monday, the commissioners have no authority to hire Chesley and Robert Furnier on contingency - meaning the attorneys get a share of whatever they win. Allen agrees with Jackson.

"I don't have any problem with the commissioners hiring outside counsel to sue the Bengals," he said. "(But) the law is the law, and there's no provision for a contingency fee."

Hours before Allen joined Jackson's lawsuit, however, Chesley moved it to U.S. District Court.

He said it was inextricably tied to the year-old taxpayer suit against the Bengals that the commissioners hired him to help them join.

Chesley's action Thursday takes the Jackson-Allen suit out of the hands of Common Pleas Judge Steve Martin - a former assistant county prosecutor - and puts it into the hands of a federal judge who may be less receptive to Allen.

U.S District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel refused to dismiss the suit against the Bengals in a February ruling. The ruling said both that the county has standing to sue the Bengals and that the prosecutor's office failed to do so because of a conflict of interest. The prosecutor's office helped negotiate the stadium lease.

In the final legal twist of the day, the commissioners asked Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman to approve their hiring of Chesley and Furnier.

Portune and Heimlich approved the contract hiring the attorneys Wednesday under their authority to spend up to $109,000 a year on outside legal counsel. Commissioner John Dowlin voted against the contract.

Ohio law allows the Common Pleas Court to approve hiring of outside legal counsel without a dollar limit. The court can be used only to circumvent the prosecutor when the prosecutor refuses to take action and has a conflict of interest.

Said Chesley of Allen's suing the commissioners: "This is exactly the reason why we are suggesting they need outside counsel.

"This proves the point."

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com




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