COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio House Republicans have asked the state's attorney general and auditor to review legal fees billed to taxpayers by Democrats as part of a lawsuit brought on behalf of private citizens over newly drawn state legislative districts.
The state redraws legislative and congressional districts once every 10 years to reflect population shifts identified in the U.S. census.
Both Republican and Democratic caucuses were given $265,000 in taxpayer money for mapmaking last year. The money could be used to cover the cost of supplies, software, office space and consulting in the redistricting process.
Invoices obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show Democrats have sought almost $73,000 in taxpayer funds to pay for legal services from Perkins Coie law firm, which is headquartered in Seattle.
Three lawyers from the firm are listed among the counsel representing citizens in the lawsuit over the new state legislative lines.
Questions over the invoices are the latest in a string of claims from both sides that each has mishandled duties in the once-per-decade line-drawing process.
Democrats filed the lawsuit over the Republican-drawn legislative lines last week with the Ohio Supreme Court on behalf of three dozen affected Ohioans. They claim GOP state leaders who controlled the mapmaking process violated provisions of the state constitution that prohibit political maps from unnecessarily splitting communities between districts.
The lawsuit further charges Republicans with violations of state open meeting laws, after records showed they used nearly $10,000 in public money for a hotel room where they held secret discussions about the maps.
It's unclear how much of the $72,756.96 in legal fees that Democrats want taxpayers to pay was related to the lawsuit, although attorneys for House and Senate Democrats wrote in a letter last week to the lawyer for House Republicans that "a portion" was related to the complaint.
House Republicans are asking the state auditor whether the firm can be lawfully be paid; Perkins Coie has not received any payments to cover the invoices.
The auditor's spokeswoman said Monday the office's legal counsel is reviewing the Republicans' request for the possibility of conflict of interest.
Auditor Dave Yost, a Republican, sits on the five-member Apportionment Board that approved the state legislative maps and is also named in the lawsuit.
While the House GOP acknowledges that mapmaking money could be spent on legal research, they say they are concerned about it being used to support a lawsuit brought for 36 private individuals.
"You cannot have the state of Ohio paying private citizens' lawsuit fees, essentially," said Mike Dittoe, a spokesman for the House Republicans. "That is not in our view, from what we can see on the surface so far, something that is legal."
Dittoe contends Democrats also needed the attorney general's approval for Perkins Coie to do certain legal work on their behalf, which he said was not requested.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Mike DeWine's office said it can't discuss conversations with clients.
DeWine, a Republican, serves as the lawyer to statewide officials, agencies, and the General Assembly among others. In some instances, he can appoint outside counsel to assist in cases, though no state officer is named among the citizens in the legislative redistricting lawsuit.
Mike Rowe, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said Democrats do not need DeWine's permission because previous lawsuits on redistricting and reapportionment have not required the attorney general's approval. Rowe also said the invoices are in line with the terms and conditions lawmakers agreed to last year for the mapmaking process.
"If they used state resources, taxpayers' money to break the law, to violate the constitution -- how else are we to defend the citizens of the state of Ohio?" Rowe said. "I think that the fair question on the other side is: Is it a fair expense of state resources and tax money to draw maps that were gerrymandered?"
Rowe noted that the state has spent almost $160,000 for legal counsel hired by the Republican-dominated task force for redistricting and reapportionment.
Dittoe defended the expense, saying the firm Baker Hostetler vetted both congressional and state legislative lines for the whole state -- not just Republicans.
The state legislative maps comply with the Ohio Constitution, he said.
In order for Democrats to challenge the legislative lines in court and have legal standing, the plaintiffs had to be people directly affected by each newly drawn district, Rowe said.
Democrats filed the lawsuit Wednesday, saying the maps of 99 House and 33 Senate districts split cities, counties, and other community units more than 250 times.
"This is a lawsuit by Ohioans for Ohioans to defend the state's constitution against gerrymandered districts," Rowe said.
The legislative lines were approved in September by a board of top-ranking state officials charged with redrawing the lines.
Republicans hold a majority of seats on the state's Apportionment Board -- as they do in both the Ohio House and Senate. The board's members consist of four Republicans -- Gov. John Kasich, Senate President Tom Niehaus, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Yost -- and one Democrat, House Minority Leader Armond Budish.
One government watchdog called the dispute over the legal fees "a perfect example of how broken things are."
Catherine Turcer said it highlights the need to rethink how lines are drawn.
"Why leave this in the hands of people who have such a conflict of interest?" said Turcer, a co-founder of the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting and director of the Money in Politics project that researches contributions to Ohio's statewide and legislative candidates.
It's not yet known whether the state's Supreme Court will want to hear oral arguments in the case or when it might rule on the question of whether the boundary lines are constitutional. The state holds its primary on March 6.
By ANN SANNER, Associated Press
The Associated Press