Ohio Ethics Commission probes councilmen

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – New revelations in the ongoing case of a pair of Bridgeport Village Councilmen accused of double-dipping have the pair under investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission.

That was disclosed during a pre-trial hearing Wednesday for Ben Lenz and Dave Smith before Belmont County Probate Court Judge J. Mark Costine. The pair are being sued by nine village residents.

Costine also ordered Belmont County Prosecutor Chris Berhalter to prosecute the case despite Berhalter previously sending the judge a letter that stated he didn’t think his office should prosecute the case, as the village did have a solicitor in Mark Thomas who is not a subject in the legal matter.

But Costine recused Thomas in late August and Wednesday told Berhalter to explain his stance to the court. After a meeting in Costine’s chambers, the judge ruled Berhalter must represent the plaintiffs.

Berhalter and J. Dean Carro, an attorney representing the defendants, both asked for another continuance until the Ohio Ethics Commission probe is completed.

Costine granted the request.

In the meantime, the two councilmen will not be allowed to attend council meetings until at least their Oct. 2 trial date.

The lawsuit also alleges that Smith’s wife, Misty, also receives compensation through the Village of Bridgeport Fire Department.

The nine village residents named as plaintiffs in the suit are John Porter, Shirleann Murad, James J. Murad, Mikida J. Clegg, H. James Brubach, Chris Tarter, Diane K. Orum, Anna M. Gallagher and William E. Clegg.

Along with possibly being removed from their council seats, attorney Michael Shaheen, who is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said the accused, if found to be in violation of the law, could be ordered to pay financial restitution to the village, and also could be responsible for the plaintiffs’ legal fees.

A temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, issued by Costine, preventing Smith and Lenz from participating in any undertaking associated with their position with village council, including, but not limited to, council meetings, committee meetings, and communications with village officials until the conclusion of the case, was also extended upon agreement by all attorneys involved, according to court documents.

The court, however, reserves jurisdiction to make further rulings on the TRO as may be necessary. The court also found that the village will not be irreparably harmed by the extension of the TRO and encourages village council and village officials to schedule council meetings and conduct the ordinary business, which was done Tuesday night.

Shaheen filed a four-page lawsuit nearly a month ago on the behalf of nine village residents against Smith and Lenz. Both Smith and Lenz are accused of hiring themselves in their capacities on council as EMTs through the village during their current terms.

According to Ohio Revised Code 705.12, a councilman is prohibited from being employed by the same entity and prohibited from having an interest “in the profits or emoluments of any contract, job, work, or service for the municipal corporation.”

North can be reached at knorth@timesleaderonline.com