Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine countered criticism of alleged favoritism in the state's debt collection program by announcing his office had a record year in collecting money owed to the state. The total of $471.8 million collected in 2013 topped 2012, when $466.6 million was collected.
The attorney general hires collection agencies or collection law firms to pursue delinquent student loans, medical bills owed to state hospitals and unpaid taxes. Since DeWine's election, Ohio has tallied its three top collections totals in history.
"Because these recovered funds directly reduce the strain on government budgets, a successful collections operation is one of the most important ways we can protect Ohio taxpayers," DeWine said in a statement.
Last week, David Pepper, a Cincinnati attorney and the Democratic challenger for the Attorney General's office, called for federal authorities to investigate DeWine's role in awarding collection contracts after a report found companies were giving campaign donations while the state was reviewing bids for the work.
Pepper's accusations of corruption, rigged bids and contracts awarded to favored political donors followed a Dayton (Ohio) Daily News investigation that found state bid documents were altered to favor CELCO Ltd., a collection agency founded by one of DeWine's political allies.
CELCO, located in Hudson, Ohio, received state work even though the company, at the time, had no direct experience in collections and was formed just two days before DeWines office solicited qualifications for a contract.
Pepper argues DeWine's record collections year was 2011, using firms hired by Richard Cordray, DeWine's Democratic predecessor, and when Ohio's economic recovery hit its stride.
Brian Hester, deputy communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party, added that the total amount collected should not be an excuse for a "rigged bidding process to benefit his campaign donors to personally benefit himself."
DeWine's spokesman Dan Tierney said DeWine's office considered qualifications and looked for a variety of specialties and locations around the state. The political donations didn't sway the process and some of the campaign money was directed to the Ohio Republican Party and not to DeWine's campaign, he added.?
Ohio newspapers have been critical of the appearance of a pay-to-play operation.
"Theres at least an appearance problem in how DeWine (and his predecessors) have awarded state work. Contract awards should be made more visible and contractor performance easier to measure by whomever Ohioans elect or re-elect as attorney general in November," wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer's editorial board.
From the Akron Beacon Journal's editorial board:
"Hard to shake the impression of a deal wired to a favored bidder. [Pepper] makes a worthy point about Ohioans deserving better from the attorney generals office. What the state needs is a truly transparent and accountable system for making and tracking these selections, ending the impression of a pay-to-play operation for attorneys, collection agencies and others contracting with the office."