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Democrats criticize new legal opinion

Ohio Democrats are crying foul over a legal opinion from Attorney General Mike DeWine that they say will allow state Treasurer Josh Mandel and officeholders to hold campaign-style town halls and stick the taxpayer with the bill.

In an 11-page opinion issued this week, DeWine cleared Mandel to use tax money to hire a contractor to organize and conduct “tele-town hall” meetings as long as he sticks to talking about treasurer’s business and matters of general interest.

The opinion also allows Mandel to venture off official business matters if a caller asks about some other topic.

“It is flat out wrong,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern. “This smacks of partisanship. It smacks of political gamesmanship.”

Redfern, who is also a state representative, said it’ll open the “floodgates” for any statewide or legislative officeholder to use public money to pay for these campaign-style conference calls. The opinion gives the go-ahead to micro-target audiences favorable to the candidates, he said.

Mandel, who made an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate against Democrat Sherrod Brown in 2012, is running for re-election as treasurer this year. He faces a challenge from state Rep. Connie Pillich, D-Cincinnati.

Tele-town halls use phone lists and robo-call invites to set up a conference. Fees usually run $1,000 to $3,000, depending on how many people sign in, Redfern said.

Mandel spokesman Chris Berry responded to press questions with the following written statement: “Treasurer Mandel takes pride in being accessible to his constituents. Our office is looking into hosting telephone town hall meetings because we believe in empowering citizens to question their public officials and hold them accountable.”

In his request for a legal opinion of DeWine’s office, Mandel noted that federal officeholders are permitted to use public money to hold in-person and telephone town hall meetings. And the Ohio Republican Party noted that Brown conducted 37 tele-town halls, connecting with more than a million Ohioans, and more than doubled the number of emails he sent out at taxpayer expense during his re-election year.

“We look forward to the Ohio Democratic Party chastising Sherrod Brown for running a political campaign from his Senate office,” said Ohio GOP spokesman Chris Schrimpf.

Democrat David Pepper, who is running against DeWine for attorney general this year, said in a written statement that the opinion sets a bad precedent and will open the door to allowing officials to campaign on public time and on the public dime.

“Mike DeWine just rolled out a point-by-point recipe guiding politicians on how to use taxpayer dollars for politically beneficial, self-promotional purposes,” Pepper said. “Instead of providing clear boundaries of taxpayer-funded self-promotion, or clear cautions about the potential misuse of taxpayer funds, this opinion is so open-ended that it makes it inevitable that inappropriate use of public dollars will occur.”

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