Ask the right question and the answer is “Chandra”
By Subodh Chandra
The other day, I am embarrassed to report that with my wife out of the house, I lost one of my triplet two-year olds in our own home. He disappeared. I couldn’t find him anywhere. With the other two corralled in another room, I wandered about the house calling out his name and he wouldn’t respond. I started to worry. “What if he fell down the laundry chute? What if he climbed into the dryer?” I kept calling out his name, “Chethan! (it rhymes with Nathan) Where are you?” He didn’t respond. “What am I going to tell my wife?” I thought.
The other day, I am embarrassed to report that with my wife out of the house, I lost one of my triplet two-year olds in our own home.
Finally, in case he was hiding, I had an idea to trick him into responding. Instead of yelling for him, I simply asked, “Chethan…?” And sure enough, he responded from the distance, “…Chandra.” I repeated the question and started honing in as he responded. Finally, I had him. (He actually looked startled when he got found, caught, and kissed. I’m sure he was wondering, “How did Daddy catch me?”)
One of the things that struck me as I began running for Ohio Attorney General last year was how few Ohioans – even those who pay close attention to politics – seemed to respond when I tried to call on them to care about the Attorney General’s office. They all seemed to be hiding. Nonlawyers figured it’s just an office that lawyers should care about. Lawyers figured it’s just an office that lawyers who profit from the A.G.’s office should care about.
Why do Ohioans have such limited expectations and imagination about the office? Because for so long they’ve had Attorneys General who have done so little. Few Ohioans can name any major accomplishments of the Attorney General over the last 12 years. Yet many have heard of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and his accomplishments.
Whether it’s in New York or Ohio, though, the attorney general’s job is to be the “People’s Lawyer” and run the “People’s Law Firm” by holding other officeholders, businesses, and individuals accountable. If the governor’s job is to lead us to prosperity (and heaven knows we need a new governor to bring us some prosperity), the attorney general is supposed to protect Ohioans from harm and from loss. Recent attorneys general have failed in this mission.
Here are just a few examples of what I would do with the awesome untapped authority of this great public law firm:
End the culture of corruption and cronyism by fostering an alternative culture. When I was a federal prosecutor and as Cleveland law director we created a strong alternative culture (accept no gifts; always act in the public interest), and promoted that culture across government. People in other departments soon came to our department (and not just to the media) to whistleblow about wrongdoing. We investigated those allegations and pursued them vigorously, including prosecution as appropriate.
Pursue predatory lenders instead of support them as Attorney General Petro has done. When Cleveland passed its ordinance to restrict extreme predatory loans, the lending lobbyists had the state legislature pass a law that the lenders themselves wrote. The lenders then sued Cleveland and Dayton to stop us from protecting our citizens. But Attorney General Jim Petro, who should not have even have a dog in the fight, intervened in this case on behalf of the predators and against those who are preyed upon. Under my leadership, we beat Petro. He was on the wrong side and I would not be.
Hold officeholders to the Ohio Constitution and the Supreme Court cases on educational funding. Petro and Montgomery did nothing to try to bring the state into compliance. I would. This would include, if necessary, presenting constitutional funding plans for consideration. And I would turn up the heat increasingly on the legislature and governor, regardless of party, until they comply- going back to court if necessary with the appropriate facts to show willful noncompliance. The A.G.’s oath is to the U.S. and Ohio constitutions first and to enforce state law second.
Join the other active American attorneys general in national projects like Connecticut A.G. Dick Blumenthal’s suit against the federal government against the No Child Left Behind Act as an unfunded mandate, seeking a federal anti-price gouging statute, pursuing major predatory lenders, fighting prescription-drug prices, etc. Even though we are the seventh largest state in the country, Montgomery was one of the last attorneys general in America to join the tobacco litigation. It cost us billions of dollars in potential recoveries and sent the wrong message about Ohioans’ views about the marketing of tobacco to children.
Reform the state’s crime lab. Right now, the state’s crime lab is taking far too long to process DNA results and other testing. That’s not tough on crime. When I was Cleveland law director, I helped achieve justice for the victim of a wrongful conviction by making sure we cleaned up our act in our crime lab and that there were no other victims out there.
Enforce environmental, consumer-protection, wage, and safety laws.
Slash spending on outside “special” counsel to actually make them “special.” Although the Attorney General will sometimes need to engage outside attorneys who can provide special expertise, I have examined Petro’s spending and much of it is suspect. He sends it out and the tab doesn’t show up on his budget; it is borne by other agencies and public universities so he gets to proclaim himself (falsely) a fiscal conservative, and – let’s face it – reap campaign contributions from those to whom he has farmed out work. Routine public work – documenting basic real-estate transactions, and defending civil-rights, employment, and public-hospital medical-malpractice cases – could be conducted in-house at much lower cost. Petro should never have sent much of this work out in the first place. Some cases he farmed out are the bread and butter of what Assistant A.G.s do (including employment-defense work). There are also potentially huge cost savings in the university patent work (which could be done with lower negotiated fixed fees) and the collections work. When I was law director, I negotiated much better rates on collection cases, so that the firms who collect on debts owed to the city received no more than 23% of what they collected. Petro pays an outrageous 33%–and he has more negotiating leverage than I ever did.
Before I became Cleveland’s Law Director, Cleveland had spent $7.4 million in the year 2000 on outside lawyers – more than Los Angeles, a city seven times Cleveland’s size. We fixed this problem by making Cleveland’s Law Department the public’s law firm. We hired talented people and brought the work in-house. For every new dollar we spent in house, we saved Cleveland taxpayers $16.
And we insisted that lawyers hired for their expertise could not delegate work to inexperienced associates at their firm – our attorneys would help, instead. This kept fees down and ensured that we received just the expert advice for which we were paying. Unless we had a conflict of interest, we never “turnkeyed” a matter like Petro did with the BWC. We actively managed even the outsourced cases.
By the time I left Cleveland’s Law Department, we had reduced outside-counsel spending by 88% to $850,000 a year.
Raising hiring, performance, ethical, and professionalism standards. As law director, I never hired someone because of politics. We created a new culture of excellence, humanity, and decency. We attracted graduates of top schools and top graduates of local schools, and partners and associates from top law firms and public-service backgrounds to join the first-rate staff that had toughed out the difficult years. We did careful background checks and did not hire attorneys with ethical or competency issues, bar reprimands, etc. How did we attract stellar hires? Part of it was bringing more of the interesting and challenging work in-house. Part of it, if I may say so immodestly, was having a “lawyer’s lawyer” at the top of the organization who could hypnotize other top lawyers into remembering why they had become lawyers to begin with. And once we brought people in, we fostered a strong culture of professionalism in the way people treated each other internally and behaved outside of the department.
Ohio next Attorney General must not be yet another politician with a law degree, whether a Democrat or a Republican. Given the kinds of problems Ohio is facing and will face over the next four years, only an accomplished lawyer, prosecutor, and executive who can lead the law firm to protect Ohioans from further harm and loss.
Because the Attorney General is supposed to be the People’s Lawyer, we should compare the candidates’ records of accomplishment and ask ourselves, “If my own life, liberty, or property were at stake, whom would I hire to be my lawyer?”
I hope your answer will be, “…Chandra.”
Subodh Chandra is a Democratic candidate for Ohio Attorney General and the only Democrat in the race who is a former prosecutor and knows the difference between a grand-jury subpoena and a grand piano. Betty Montgomery will not out “law and order” him.