Belmont County Prosecutor Chris Berhalter must prosecute the case of two Bridgeport Village Council members suspended from office, County Probate Judge J. Mark Costine ordered Wednesday.
During a pre-trial hearing, Costine also ruled that a restraining order suspending council members David Smith and Ben Lenz from their elected posts remain in force while their case is determined by the court. Smith and Lenz are accused in a lawsuit filed by 10 Bridgeport residents of voting on legislation that financially benefited them while in their role as council members.
Their case presently has as trial date set for Oct. 2. But Berhalter and J. Dean Carro, attorney representing the defendants, jointly requested a continuance as the Ohio Ethics Commission conducts its own investigation into the conduct of Bridgeport public officials.
Costine's order granted the continuance, but didn't set another trial date.
Neither Berhalter nor Carro returned calls seeking comment.
Under Ohio law, Bridgeport Village Solicitor Mark Thomas would serve as prosecutor and represent the interests of the plaintiffs in such legal matters. But during an Aug. 28 hearing, Thomas asked to be recused from the duty. He informed the court that in his role of solicitor, he already had provided legal counsel to both the plaintiffs and the defendants in the case, and he believed there would be a conflict of interest.
The Ohio Revised Code further states the county prosecutor must become involved if there is no village solicitor, or if the village solicitor is himself accused of wrongdoing.
Berhalter informed Costine by letter he did not believe his office should prosecute the Bridgeport case, as the village did have a solicitor in Thomas who is not the subject of the legal matter.
But Costine recused Thomas, and ordered Berhalter to further explain to the court his position. Following a meeting in chambers Wednesday, Costine ruled Berhalter must represent the plaintiffs.
Bridgeport residents filing the lawsuit are Shirleann Murad, the daughter of Bridgeport Mayor John Callarik, and James Murad; Callarik's granddaughter, Mikida Clegg, and William E. Clegg; the mayor's secretary, Ann Gallagher; and residents John Porter, Chris Tarter, H. James Brubach and Diane Orum. Councilman Richard Riley also has joined in the complaint against Smith and Lenz, bringing the number of Bridgeport residents filing the legal action to 10.
Smith and Lenz are seeking re-election on the Nov. 5 ballot.