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Court News Ohio

Ethics Commission Review Not Required Before Prosecutors Pursue Ethics Charges

The Supreme Court of Ohio today upheld the conviction of a former Williams County sheriff for violating state ethics laws when he posted confidential information about children services cases on a sheriff’s office website.

A Supreme Court majority rejected Steven Towns’ claim that prosecutors could not charge him with an ethics crime without the allegations first being reviewed by the Ohio Ethics Commission.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Jennifer Brunner stated the Ethics Commission has the authority to initiate ethics investigations against public officials and refer cases to local prosecutors, but there is no prerequisite that charges can only be levied after the Ethics Commission considers the claim.

“Nothing in R.C. 102.06 prohibits criminal prosecution of a violation of Ohio’s ethics law without charges or a complaint having been first submitted to the appropriate ethics commission,” she wrote.

The decision affirmed Towns’ 180-day suspended jail sentence, three years of community control, and $500 fine for a first-degree misdemeanor.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody Stewart joined Justice Brunner’s opinion. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only.

Sheriff Contests Charges
At the request of special prosecutors, a Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent filed a three-count complaint against Towns in Bryan Municipal Court. One of the charges included a misdemeanor violation of R.C. 102.03(B), which prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information obtained by a public official in the course of the official’s duties.

Towns pleaded not guilty to the charges and asked the trial court to dismiss the case. He presented several arguments for dismissing the case, including that violations of R.C. 102.03(B) are matters in which the Ethics Commission has sole jurisdiction and that no charges can be brought unless the commission refers a case for prosecution.

The trial court refused to dismiss the case, and a jury found Towns guilty of disclosing confidential information. Towns appealed the decision to the Sixth District Court of Appeals, raising several claims of trial court errors, including permitting the criminal prosecution of the disclosure charge without prior review of the matter by the Ethics Commission.

The Sixth District affirmed the trial court’s decision. Towns appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider his claim regarding the Ethics Commission.

Supreme Court Analyzed Role of Ethics Commission
Under R.C. Chapter 102, ethics complaints are handled by one of three ethics commissions. One commission considers matters related to the General Assembly and another hears matters solely related to judicial officers, employees, and candidates. All other ethics matters involving Ohio public officials and employees are considered by the Ohio Ethics Commission.

Justice Brunner explained that, generally, county prosecuting attorneys, city attorneys, and law directors are authorized by state law to pursue criminal cases. Towns argued the authority of the Williams County Prosecutor’s Office to charge him with a crime was limited because R.C. 102.06 required the charge first be considered by the Ethics Commission.

The Court explained that R.C. 102.06 states that the “appropriate ethics commission” can receive complaints and authorizes the commission to initiate complaints for alleged violations of state ethics laws. As part of its investigation, the commission may share information with a prosecuting authority, a law enforcement agency, an inspector general, or with the other two ethics commissions.

If a commission finds that facts in the alleged complaint against a public official are true, the commission must report its findings to the appropriate prosecuting authority, which in Towns’ case would be the Williams County prosecutor.

The Court ruled that nothing in R.C. 102.06, however, prohibits a prosecutor from pursuing a criminal prosecution without first obtaining permission from the Ethics Commission.

“Nor does any provision of the statute state or even imply that the appropriate ethics commission is the exclusive agency to receive ethics complaints,” the Court stated.

The law appears to contemplate that information will be shared between the specific ethics commission and a prosecutor, and that ethics proceedings and criminal proceedings are related, the opinion stated. But neither an investigation by the ethics commission nor criminal charges imposed by a prosecutor is dependent on the other, the Court concluded.

2020-1503. State v. Towns, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-3632.

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