City’s bill for records suit tops $422,000

The city of Marietta’s legal bills continue to pile up in a public records lawsuit that was filed against the city in 2011 by Tuscarawas County residents Edward and Dorothy Verhovec and their attorney, William Walker Jr.

“The city has so far paid a total of $422,840.72 in legal expenses for this case,” said Angela Tucker, chief deputy auditor with the Marietta auditor’s office.

Earlier this month city council’s finance committee was asked for another $30,000 to help cover costs for the case which city law director Paul Bertram III says is not over yet. The request was approved by council last week.

Finance committee chairman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, said he was a bit surprised to receive the funding request.

“I thought we were close to the end of that case, but we’re apparently still going through the appeals process, so I don’t think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for now,” he said. “But what else can we do? We’re continuing to fight in order to recoup the money the city has paid out for this case.”

The original lawsuit, filed June 26, 2011, by Edward Verhovec of New Philadelphia, involved a public records request for approximately 3,300 cable TV survey cards that were returned to the city by customers in 1999.

After some searching the city eventually produced the records. But Verhovec sought $1,000 for each document not produced in what he considered a reasonable time (the maximum dollar amount allowed by state law at the time), which translated to an approximate total of $3.3 million.

Because the documents were produced, that case was dismissed in 2012.

But a related action, filed against Marietta by Dorothy Verhovec of Uhrichsville, sought 20 years of city council records, including handwritten council clerk notes and other information.

The city sought a summary judgment in Washington County Common Pleas Court last year and in November the Verhovecs and Walker were found liable for the legal costs and were ordered to pay the city $307,000 by former Washington County Common Pleas Judge Susan Boyer.

But that ruling was appealed earlier this year as the defendants sought a writ of prohibition against Boyer’s order, claiming the judge did not have jurisdiction in the matter.

“Judge Boyer made a ruling that was adverse to the Verhovecs and their attorney, so they filed a writ of prohibition to try and prevent the judge from making that ruling,” explained Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider.

The case moved on to the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Washington County and was later appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, both of which ruled in Boyer’s favor, and the prohibition request was denied.

Schneider said that was the end of the county’s involvement related to the Verhovecs and Walker, and Boyer’s original ruling still stands.

Bertram said the case has now been returned to the Fourth District Court of Appeals and the city is awaiting that court’s decision on the matter.

“Right now we’re waiting on the appeals court to rule on a case that was already determined by the summary judgment last year,” he said. “That includes the $307,000 ordered by Judge Boyer in 2012.”

If the court of appeals rules completely in the city’s favor, Bertram said the court actions could end, but he expects a ruling in favor of the city could spur the Verhovecs and Walker to enter more appeals that may end up at the Ohio Supreme Court or possibly in federal court.

“That would mean more legal expense for the city,” he said.

But Bertram added that at some point in time the city may be able to recoup the additional legal costs that have been expended since Boyer’s ruling last November.

Most of the $422,840.72 in legal expenses has gone to fees for Attorney Greta Kerns and the law firm of Squire Sanders Dempsey in Columbus who have represented the city in the case.