The Ohio Supreme Court has ordered Marc Dann, who resigned as the state’s attorney general in 2008 amid a sexual harassment scandal, to give up his law license for six months.
The court’s decision was a blow to Dann’s attempt to rebuild his reputation through pro bono work with clients facing foreclosure and means he can’t earn a living as an attorney during the term of the suspension.
The punishment marked a small victory for Dann: The six-month suspension was half the one-year term that was at one time recommended. The court gave Dann credit for fulfilling his community service obligations, paying his fines and submitting a pile of letters from judges attesting to his character.
Still, justices said Dann’s position set him apart from other lawyers, his conduct displayed poor judgment and his reasons for the conduct were ultimately unsatisfactory.
“Poor judgment is not an aggravating factor,” they wrote. “However, whether or not his explanations were sensible or credible, they are not an excuse. The panel cannot help but wonder at the harm to the reputation of the legal profession and to the confidence of the public in the office of attorney general when the chief law officer in the state has committed ethical errors and tries to explain them away as Respondent has.”
The ruling was the final step in an ordeal dating to Dann’s turbulent 17 months in office beginning in 2007 and was anticipated because of the precedent it involved. The last statewide officeholder to face a sanction from the state Supreme Court, former Gov. Bob Taft, received only a public reprimand.
Dann did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Tuesday’s sanction.
His law partner, Mark Harshman, issued a statement saying he was saddened by the decision but respected it. The firm will remove Dann’s name from its masthead during his suspension.
Harshman said the firm has been open with its clients about the possible suspension and is confident they will continue with the firm.
“We are proud of the work that we do to protect the rights of the hard working people that we count among our clients and will continue to wage the battle against foreclosure,” he said.
The 50-year-old Democrat was a surprise winner in the 2006 race for attorney general, defeating popular Republican Betty Montgomery, then state auditor and a former two-term attorney general. Dann has acknowledged he didn’t expect to win and was overwhelmed by the duties of the office.
That didn’t keep him from making a big splash initially. In his first 11 months, he took on the nation’s largest insurance brokerage, the mortgage lending industry, student loan providers, the big three credit rating agencies and MySpace.
But he also had missteps. He got caught in a traffic jam and arrived late to his first big news conference. He used state money to purchase an expensive Chevy Suburban SUV from a campaign donor for traversing the state. A TV camera caught him cursing a reporter over a negative story outside a fundraiser for then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
He also issued BlackBerry devices to nearly a third of his staff, costing the state almost $30,000 per month.
In 2007, Dann’s email quip to his press spokesman that “Jesus had it better on good friday” than the man did on a particularly bad news day had the Ohio Christian Alliance and the state GOP accusing Dann, who is Jewish, of religious bigotry.
Dann resigned in May 2008 following his admission he had an affair with an employee.
In 2010, he pleaded guilty in Franklin County Municipal Court to using campaign funds he allegedly gave to two employees to pay rent and utilities for a house they shared near downtown Columbus and a condominium they later moved into in the northwest suburbs. The charge also involved a $5,000 gift or loan Dann made from his elected office’s transition account to one of those aides.
A second charge alleged that Dann knowingly filed a false financial disclosure form.
A lawyer for the Supreme Court’s disciplinary counsel, a type of prosecutor of legal misdeeds, cited Dann’s failure to take full responsibility for his actions in pushing for a suspension.
“Never before has the chief legal officer of the state of Ohio been subject to discipline,” Joseph Caligiuri, senior assistant disciplinary counsel, wrote in a February filing with the Supreme Court. “As Ohio’s attorney general, respondent was responsible for protecting the public; consequently, it is imperative that the citizens of Ohio have the utmost confidence in the integrity of its chief legal officer.”
An attorney for Dann had argued to the court that other factors should be considered.
“These factors include the importance of other sanctions and penalties, his cooperation in the disciplinary process, his acceptance of responsibility and expression of remorse, and the evidence of good character and his pro bono work since his resignation,” Dann’s attorney, Alvin Mathews, told the court in a January filing.