The Athens County Commissioners denied the Athens County auditor outside legal counsel last week, saying to The Athens Messenger it would lead to the attorney suing the county.
Last week, at the Athens County Commissioners meeting, Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson requested outside legal counsel, Andrew Engel, a Dayton attorney, to represent her office as part of her growing concerns about the Athens County Board of Revision expedited foreclosure process.
Her request was denied.
“I can respect that they don’t want me to have legal counsel,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who is a member of that board, expressed extreme concern to The Athens Messenger over the process, and said she would feel more comfortable with independent legal counsel.
She argued Athens County Treasurer Ric Wasserman’s presence as chair of both the Board of Revision and the Athens County Land Bank, a nonprofit corporation operated by county officials to sell blighted land, opens the county to legal threats due to an apparent conflict of interest.
She described last week’s meeting where she requested counsel as an interrogation by county government officials, including Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn.
“I was brought to a commissioner's meeting to be interrogated without counsel,” Thompson said.
However, multiple county officials, including Blackburn and Commissioners Chris Chmiel and Charlie Adkins, said Thompson was planning to use Engel to initiate a lawsuit against the county to challenge the legality of the Board of Revision expedited foreclosures process.
“To try and spend our county resources to then in turn, sue ourselves doesn’t really make any sense,” Chmiel said.
Adkins said when he met him in a Zoom call, it was obvious Engel wanted to sue Athens County.
“When I was watching him on the zoom meeting, he was shaking his head yes — his intention was to sue the county,” Adkins said. “I am sure not going to hire someone whose intention is to sue the county.”
Blackburn added the cost for the attorney was $250 an hour.
“The auditor asked the commissioners to hire legal counsel at $250 an hour to sue the county,” Blackburn said.
Thompson said it is not her intention to sue Athens County.
“My intention is not to sue Athens County — my intention is to make sure we’re following the process that doesn’t reek of impropriety,” Thompson said.
Engel, the attorney requested by Thompson, has had a history of suing boards of revision, including in the Ohio Supreme Court case Feltner v. Cuyahoga County. Board of Revision.
Engels has also been suspended three times from practicing law, as recently as 2018, The Dayton Daily News reported.
In 2018, Engel was suspended for “failing to follow through on a client’s debt-collection case and grudgingly cooperating with disciplinary investigators,” In 2001, Engel was publicly reprimanded by the Ohio Supreme Court for “neglecting a legal matter and attempting to handle it without adequate preparation.” In 2004, the court suspended Engel for “two years with six months stayed for several rule violations including engaging in conduct that adversely reflected on his fitness to practice law and not cooperating with disciplinary proceedings.”
Engel could not be reached for comment, as nobody answered the listed phone number, and there was no option to leave a voicemail.
Thompson said she was seeking this specific attorney because he understands expedited foreclosures and “the appearance of impropriety on this issue.”
Thompson also said she believed it was clear Blackburn would not represent her, and was representing the treasurer’s office instead.
“It’s very apparent his interests are not to represent me,” Thompson said.
Blackburn said Thompson had requested counsel, and said she was entitled to it through “flawed legal logic.”
“You can’t get outside counsel because you don’t like the law,” Blackburn said.
He also said in situations where outside counsel is needed, it is typical for them to be appointed, not selected. He added outside counsel is often a neighboring county assistant prosecutor working at no extra charge to the county.
“This is not normal, to pick the attorney you’re getting,” Blackburn said.
Thompson argued appointed outside counsel would defeat the point of having it at all.
“If they want to pick my attorney, that creates a different dynamic,” Thompson said.