Steve Dettelbach has spent his career working to make families safer and to hold the powerful accountable.
As a prosecutor for more than two decades, and a U.S. Attorney, Dettelbach never lost a federal criminal trial. He worked with law enforcement to prosecute terrorists, drug dealers, corrupt politicians, polluters, and corporations that preyed on Ohio consumers. At the U.S. Department of Justice, Steve led one of the nation’s largest crackdowns on human trafficking and stood up for the rights of every person.
A husband, father, and native Clevelander, Dettelbach is running for Ohio Attorney General in 2018 to put his experience as a career prosecutor to work for the people of Ohio.
Equality Before The Law
In an exclusive interview with Plunderbund late last month, Dettelbach said he is not a career politician; he is a career prosecutor who has spent his life defending victims and practicing law.
“The rule of law at its best means one simple thing: That there is one set of rules that applies to everybody, one set of rules that applies to protect every single person, no matter how vulnerable, and holds every single person accountable, no matter how powerful,” Dettelbach said.
Dettelbach said there are a lot of people in this country who recognize that this isn’t the case right now. He said people sense this because they are smart and have seen for too long cases where this is the case. It’s not just a perception.
People see their own lives getting harder and harder and the American Dream becoming more of a fantasy than a tangible reality for more and more people, he said. They see a world where powerful people and powerful special interests seem to be able to get away with almost anything, and where people who are vulnerable face more difficulties.
“I have seen that all across this state,” Dettelbach said. “I’ve seen it in east Cleveland and East Liverpool. I’ve seen it from the north to the south, with every different kind of person you can imagine and every different political persuasion. People think that who voted for Donald Trump. People think that who voted for Bernie Sanders, and everywhere in between.”
People see different rules for those who are connected and have wealth and have power, he said.
“To me, fighting for the idea that the same rules apply to everybody, that’s why I’m running. That’s what I’ve spent 20 years as a lawyer doing,” he said.
The idea of having one set of rules doesn’t happen by itself, he said, and it never has.
“It only happens when there are people who are willing to stand up and fight,” he said.
Equality before the law is the greatest aspirational ideal of our country, Dettelbach said, but the truth is that we live up to it sometimes in glorious ways and other times we fall short.
He said he is running because one of the things that makes the difference between us living up to it or falling short are the people in office who are there to try to make the ideals a reality.
“When we fall short, it is true that powerful people, rich people, people with connections, they have a different set of rules than other people,” he said. “When we fight, we can make things fair and equal, and that’s what we should be doing.”
The Interests Of The People Vs. The Interests Of Power
Dettelbach said that employing people, doing business, and having the ability to make money and give people jobs is wonderful and it’s a part of the American capitalist system that should be celebrated, but the interests of private companies are represented very well right now by a wide range of different people.
“Those people and those businesses are always going to have advocates. The job of the attorney general of the state of Ohio is not only to advocate for them but to advocate for the people who don’t have a voice sometimes; the people who need somebody to fight for them because there’s nobody else to fight for them; the people who can’t have access to senators and congressmen everyday; the people who can’t walk into boardrooms and make decisions, but who are effected so deeply by the decisions that get made,” he said.
Dettelbach said that he sees the role of attorney general as being the lawyer for the people. Being the lawyer for the people doesn’t mean spending scarce time and resources defending interests that are already well taken care of in the legal and political system, Dettelbach cautioned. Rather, he said, a lot of times it means standing up to those people.
He pointed to what’s going on in Ohio with ECOT, the private charter school profiteer that has bilked Ohio out of hundreds of millions of dollars and has spent tens of millions more in taxpayer money on legal bills and self-promotional advertising.
“We know now that for year after year after year, that company, that corporation has been taking hundreds of millions of dollars that were supposed to go to educate Ohio’s kids, and they were siphoning it out of the system based upon what appears to be inadequate, improper, and just plain fake invoices, that weren’t supported by the evidence,” he said.
This was allowed to go on with none of Ohio’s statewide officials having the ability, the willpower, or the guts to stop it while it was happening, Dettelbach said. This is a classic example of why it’s so important to make sure Ohio has officials willing to fight for them, for their children, rather than the companies trying to make more profits.
It’s unacceptable that officials in Columbus who were supposed to be watching out for this are now shocked to find out that ECOT has been doing this to Ohio’s children, he said.
“It’s a totally unacceptable answer from people who are a day late and hundreds of millions of dollars short,” Dettelbach said.
The Opioid Epidemic
As Ohio continues to claim the ignominious title of suffering the most overdose deaths in the nation, Dettelbach recalled his experience combatting the epidemic at the U.S. Attorney’s Office as the senior law enforcement officer for half of the state.
“I saw this epidemic hit our state head on, and I was ringing the warning bells very early,” he said. “What we did in the northern district of Ohio at the U.S. Attorney’s Office was we got together very early a group that covers all of the bases.”
He said the office launched an all-of-the-above strategy with its U.S. Attorney’s Heroin and Opioid Task Force, which was awarded nationally as the best outreach program of its type in the country, leading to replication in Atlanta and St. Louis.
The idea was to call together people on all sides of the problem.
“We had cops sitting next to docs sitting next to treatment people sitting next to policy makers, trying to come up with very specific, deliverable improvements we could make to push back against the heroin crisis,” he said. “I have tried many, many drug cases in my time. I believe enforcement is part of what needs to happen, but I will tell you we are not going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem. We are not going to prosecute our way out of this problem.”
Ohio needs to do a better job with addiction treatment, Dettelbach said. The current treatment system in Ohio, he said, does not nearly meet the needs of impacted communities.
“We have fallen down on the job in that respect,” he said. “There are many people in the treatment community who work seven days a week, all the time. We are not supporting them the way we need to be doing it, and we are not making opportunities available to people who are in need.”
Dettelbach recalled meeting a woman in Marietta whose family would’ve needed to somehow raise $8,000 per month to pay for her son’s addiction treatment needs.
“Ohio’s families can’t bear that burden,” he said. “We need to be more creative. We need to be more aggressive. We need to be more generous in providing treatment options to the people who are suffering this epidemic.”
Dettelbach slammed the state’s General Assembly and administration for cutting local government funds by over 50 percent at the exact time every locality in the state is being hit with this crisis, hoarding the money back in Columbus after taking it from community addiction treatment boards and local emergency personnel.
“We cut back on treatment and we cut back on law enforcement just at the time our communities needed it the most,” he said.
The other big part of fighting the crisis is providing resources for prevention, Dettelbach said. Ohio has allowed a flood of millions of units of prescription painkillers to come into the state, knowing that the vast majority weren’t ending up in the hands of people who needed them, but rather out on the street.
“Those opioid pills were the on-ramp to the heroin and opioid crisis we are facing today,” he said. “There are people who need these medications; they are not something we should be banning. But the notion that we lack the creativity and ability to make sure they get to the right people and stay out of the hands of the wrong people is totally unacceptable. I don’t think the people of Ohio are willing to accept it. We’ve been flat-footed, and slow, and uncreative in our responses.”
Dettelbach said he sees not only an opportunity and a necessity for the AG’s Office to partner with local communities, bring stakeholders together, and created a comprehensive strategy in all of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Protecting Civil Rights And Protecting Consumers
The rule of law is at the center of what the Ohio Attorney General is responsible for, Dettelbach said, and protecting civil rights and consumers are two of the things at the center of that responsibility.
“We need to be making sure that everybody in this state is treated fairly and that people aren’t discriminated against,” he said.
That goes for everybody, for people who are discriminated against because of the color of their skin, their religion, or their socio-economic status, Dettelbach said, people who are in poverty and don’t have fair economic opportunities.
“A lot of those people are very hard-working people, and they are people who only want to come home from work, support their families, and have a fair shake,” he said. “It’s the attorney general’s job to make sure they get that fair shake.”
Many of the working people of Ohio are living paycheck to paycheck, he said. They’re consumers buying things to help their families eat, to get them medical care, and fulfill their needs. They’re trying to give their kids a good education, he said.
“Fighting or consumers’ rights and making sure they’re not taken advantage of and that they’re not scammed, that their bills are fair and don’t have illegal surcharges they don’t know anything about and can’t explain, that there aren’t scam artists shaking them down and taking away their money, that when they get into their older years people aren’t taking advantage of them and taking away their life savings – that is the job of the Ohio attorney general,” he said. “That has to be front and center on the agenda of the attorney general’s office.”
On Public Service
Dettelbach said that he has been blessed in life with a wonderful family and the opportunities he’s worked hard for and gotten in the legal profession.
“To me, public service is not something that I need to do, it’s something that I want to do,” he said. “I want to encourage everyone out there who has never run for office before but are great at what they do, who care about other people, I want to encourage all of them – I don’t care if you’re Democratic or Republican – we need new people with new ideas to step up, run for, and try to get these positions.”
The same old ideas that have come from the same old crowd will not serve Ohio well in the competition to be the greatest state in the union, he said.
“We have the talent, we have the ability in this state, regardless of party, for people to step up and do this wonderful thing called public service,” he said. “On that one, I’m not just talking the talk, I’m walking the walk. And I hope others will join me.”