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Q&A with Attorney General Mike DeWine

By Stephanie Beougher

Mike DeWine’s public service career started in 1973 as an assistant county prosecutor. Subsequently, he has been a county prosecutor, state senator, congressman, lieutenant governor and U.S. senator. In 2010, he was elected as the 50th Ohio Attorney General. From his office overlooking downtown Columbus in the Rhodes State Office Tower, he reflected on the first two years in office and the challenges of being the chief law officer for the state of Ohio.

Q: What has had the biggest influence on your public service career?
A: My wife Fran, when I was in the U.S. Senate, would always tell people, “If you really want to understand what makes Mike tick or really who he is, you have to understand that he’s a prosecutor at heart.” I started as an assistant county prosecuting attorney. It was my first job out of law school. A few years later I was elected as the county prosecuting attorney in Greene County, and I think it really shaped the way I look at many different things. It was the most formative and most important period of my—at least of my professional—career. When you’re county prosecutor, every problem in your county comes across your desk. You see things that most people couldn’t believe that you see. Things that are just gut-wrenching, like child abuse, that you just couldn’t imagine would occur in your county. I think it was a great background, frankly, for every job that I’ve had since then.

Q: What have you enjoyed about being Ohio’s Attorney General?
A: The Attorney General’s Office is an exciting office. I don’t know how any lawyer who cares about the law, who cares about policy, who wants to get things done wouldn’t just love this job. I’m very fortunate to have the job, and it’s frankly everything that I thought it would be. When you sit at the desk in my office, so many problems come across your desk every day. It’s everything from election issues to crime problems. Probably the biggest surprise for me was the volume of consumer cases. We get over 30,000 phone calls every single year with people who have problems. They’re not all fraud, but of those that are, the ingenuity of the fraud artist continues to increase. One of the things we have done is to put an emphasis on criminally prosecuting those who commit consumer fraud. The way this office has always dealt in the past with fraud is to file a civil lawsuit to try to get the victim’s money back. We continue to do that, but there are some of these people that just need to be prosecuted because they commit fraud, they get fined, sometimes, and they just look at that as a cost of doing business.

Q: You’re referring to your new Economic Crimes Division in the Consumer Protection Section. What types of crime has that division focused on so far?
A: We prosecuted a couple in Coshocton County who were ripping people off in over 40 states. They would post tickets to sporting events and concerts for sale on craigslist with a similar story every time that they couldn’t use the tickets because their dad was sick and they had to leave the state. The only problem was they didn’t have the tickets and so they were ripping people off. We’re in the process of prosecuting a land scam case in Miami and several other counties. People were contacted who owned land that wasn’t worth very much and told that a buyer had been found for the property. The property owner would receive a contract and pay $1,000 or $2,000 for closing costs. The money and signed contract were sent back and that’s the last the property owner heard of them.

Q: During the campaign for the office, you talked about improving the turnaround time of DNA test results from the BCI crime lab. What progress have you made in the two years since you’ve taken office?
A: We solve about 130 cold cases every single month at BCI. These are cases where we have unknown DNA, taken from the crime scene, taken from the victim and we put it in to the national DNA database—and there are about 11 million profiles in that national database. I worked on that database while I was in the U.S. Senate to try to help states expand that great database to get that hit and find out who that person is. When I became attorney general, I asked Tom Stickrath, who I asked to be the new superintendent of BCI, to tell us how far behind BCI was, on average, getting the DNA evidence back to local law enforcement agencies. I wanted to quantify to get an idea of exactly where we were. The day I took office, we were 125 days behind. That sounds like a long time, and it is a long time, but it’s not just another government agency being slow. This has life or death consequences. Let’s say you have a rape case, and we don’t know who the assailant is but we have DNA. The DNA comes to our lab, we wait 125 days, that’s 125 days where that rapist is still loose. If we identify him quickly we can stop him from committing another crime. So I made that a priority. Since taking office, we’ve reduced that time down from 125 days to about 35 days. That’s not good enough. We’re not satisfied with that, but it is a big step forward. At the same time, the volume of DNA coming to the lab for us to process has increased 31 percent. My goal is to make the BCI crime lab the best crime lab in the country—the most efficient, the fastest and with the best results.

Q: You’ve established the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force with law enforcement and prosecutors. What kind of success are you seeing with this concerted effort to stop human trafficking?
A: My predecessor, Rich Cordray, was very involved in the human trafficking issue. He started a trafficking commission, which we have kept, and we’ve taken it to the next level. I felt we needed to be criminally prosecuting the people who are doing these crimes, and we’re working with Franklin and other counties to develop cases to prosecute these individuals and send them to prison. Human trafficking exists among us but it is invisible. We don’t see it, or we may see it but we don’t understand what we’re seeing. You walk in and get your nails done and the women who are working there don’t speak English, they don’t look you in the face. When you look over in the corner, you see sleeping bags. Those are all signs that human trafficking may very well be taking place. People sometimes think that human trafficking only occurs in foreign countries, like Thailand, but human trafficking occurs everywhere. And it’s really a pretty simple definition, at least according to my thinking: Human trafficking is forcing people to do things that they don’t want to do—against their will—and compelling them somehow to do that. In one case in Franklin County, a woman was brought in from a rural county and given drugs over time, became addicted and forced to be a prostitute. If she refused to participate, she would not be given the drugs. That’s a form of human trafficking. So it can take many different shapes, many different forms. Part of our challenge is to make people better aware of human trafficking—so we must educate as well as prosecute.

Q: Prescription drug abuse has been gaining headlines, especially in southern Ohio. Why does it seem to be such a large problem in that area of the state?
A: I’m really not sure why we see the prescription drug problem as prevalent as it is in that part of the state, but it is everywhere. There’s not a county in the state that doesn’t have the problem. We lose in the state, on average, four people a day who die of an accidental overdose of drugs. A big percentage of those deaths are due to heroin, but abuse of prescription drugs is also a problem in our state. Of those people who die of a prescription drug overdose, two-thirds of them die after taking a prescription drug that was not their prescription. They bought it off the street or were given the drug by someone else. When you look at solving this problem, it’s really a three-prong approach: treatment, education and law enforcement. For law enforcement, we have focused, along with the governor and the state medical board, on taking the licenses away from those few doctors who are nothing more than drug dealers. My office launched a program modeled after a program that first began in Union County that involves community members at a grass roots level. I hired an individual to work with communities to raise awareness through the use of videos that include interviews with local individuals affected by addiction. These videos are shown in schools and the community. We work with the grass roots groups on their broader efforts as well so that entire communities can come together to prevent individuals from using illegal drugs. People throughout the state are turning their devastating pain associated with the loss of a loved one into action to prevent others from suffering the same devastation.

Q: You’ve had some high-profile settlement cases during your first two years in office, including the national case against mortgage servicers.
A:
This is the case where the banks’ servicers got in trouble for signing names to mortgage documents, or “robo-signing,” without verifying the information. That settlement resulted in a little more than $200 million that is going directly to Ohioans to compensate them in some small way for losing their home or being underwater with their home during the mortgage crisis between 2008 and 2011. We also received about $93 million dollars for recovery efforts. After talking with mayors and elected officials around the state, I decided we have a number of abandoned homes in our communities that are affecting quality of life and property values. So I took $75 million and created the Moving Ohio Forward demolition grants. It’s not going to solve all the problems—we have more abandoned houses than $75 million will knock down— but we’re starting to see improvement in some of these neighborhoods. I also took $4 million of the settlement money and sent it to the legal aid program in the state. Legal aid is on the frontline of trying to help people who are facing the loss of their homes. I know legal aid has struggled for funding and this $4 million, I hope, will be of help to these victims.

DeWine said he is looking forward to the second half of his term, and will focus on several areas including Internet cafes. He talks about those priorities in a video interview available on the OSBA YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/ohiobar.

Stephanie Beougher is the OSBA communications and online media associate. 

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