COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Lawyers, law firms and an Ohio lobbyist who have business in Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office have all contributed to a charity important to DeWine and his family, an Associated Press review found, and the donations have doubled since he took office.
The charity, Hands Together Inc., operates a school in Haiti named for DeWine's daughter, who died in a 1993 car crash. The tuition-free school also provides meals and health care in an impoverished slum.
Funds raised at DeWine events for the school roughly doubled after he became Ohio's attorney general, from the less than $300,000 it had generated for years to more than $600,000, federal business filings show.
The donations show how companies or attorneys who seek to influence DeWine can find creative ways to do so. Yet even the appearance of impropriety risks damaging the integrity of the office. DeWine, a Republican, serves as the state's top lawyer and law enforcer.
Donors who gave $5,000 or more in 2012 and 2013, as self-reported by the charity, included an Ohio lobbyist named Michael Kiggin who went to law school with DeWine, and representatives at two law firms he lobbies for that have landed lucrative outside counsel work with DeWine's office.
Ohio business people with histories of giving to DeWine's political campaigns as well as the charitable arms of three corporations involved in litigation with the state — Merck, Aetna and Medical Mutual of Ohio — also contributed.
Spokespeople for Merck and Aetna said their giving was tied to programs that match charitable gifts by employees and retirees. The donations are reported as a lump sum, so it's not possible to tell whether the employees might have been attorneys.
In an interview Monday, DeWine said the charity has long been integral to his life and he's made no secret of his involvement.
Because "there's never enough money" to cover the school's needs, DeWine said, he's expanded from one Cleveland-area fundraiser a year to events in Cincinnati and Columbus as well. He acknowledged overlap between donors to the charity and to his political campaigns, but said it's neither intentional nor relevant.
"We make decisions in this office for special counsel, collections, whatever it is based on who we think can get the job done," he said. "A political contribution doesn't impact it, nor does a contribution to Hands Together."
The donations raise a red flag, said Brian Rothenberg, executive director of the liberal policy group ProgressOhio, which has been critical of DeWine's fundraising patterns.
"No matter how noble the purpose, you can't use your elected office on behalf of state taxpayers to benefit a private entity," Rothenberg said. "The real question here is do these donations to this charity influence how the attorney general lets contracts in the office. If there's any influence, even the most minute, it is inappropriate."
DeWine and his wife, Fran, also promote the charity through his state office during the holiday season, collecting small stuffed animals and toys for the children at a collection box in his state office building. DeWine's senior adviser recently joined the charity's board.
Umberto Fedeli, a Cleveland-area philanthropist, regularly hosts Hands Together fundraisers.
"We encourage people to come, but it's not an aggressive thing," said Fedeli, a Catholic like DeWine who said he has had "dozens and dozens of lawyers" to his office and home. He said a letter sent annually typically features a visit that the DeWines made to Haiti along with challenges the school is facing.
Email and phone messages left with Kiggin and law firms and lawyers that appear on the Hands Together list of donors over $5,000 were not returned. The call to the charity's Massachusetts office also wasn't returned.
The donors included Ice Miller, Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossman, and principals at the two firms Kiggins lobbies for, Grant & Eisenhofer and Jones Law Group of Columbus. The former is acting as Ohio's lead counsel for class-action clients in the case involving JPMorgan Chase's $6 billion trading loss two years ago. Jones, who also donated $25,000 last year to the state Republican Party, has won more than $250,000 in collections work from DeWine's office.
Fedeli said his involvement in Hands Together distinguishes DeWine from other politicians: "Most of them will not raise a penny for charity because they want it to go into political coffers. I respect the fact that Mike DeWine does."