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'Free' counsel to Huron schools turns costly

Jessica Cuffman • Mar 19, 2013 at 11:58 AM

An attorney’s promise to provide 10 free hours of service has turned into a $90,000 bill for Huron Schools.  

Erie County Common Pleas Court Judge Roger Binette this week dismissed a lawsuit that had kept Huron Schools from paying attorney Matt Markling for his work on the Fred Fox investigation.  

Early last year, the board voted 3-2 to hire Markling to investigate Fox’s alleged misdeeds, including his interactions with a district vendor and an extramarital affair on school time.  

After interviewing a number of district employees, Markling issued a 50-page report that concluded the board had substantial reason to fire Fox.   

Markling had told board members his first 10 hours of work would be free, and he would send a bill for any additional work. He kept his word — he submitted a $50,000 bill in June, followed by a $10,000 bill in July, $12,000 in October, $5,300 in November and $11,400 this past week. 

The Fox fiasco has effectively divided the school board, with the majority — Donna Green, Scott Slocum and Tim Sowecke — voting in June to fire Fox. 

The other two members, Kevin Asher 

and John Caporini, voted against the firing. 

The board ultimately suspended him without pay, pending the outcome of termination proceedings overseen by the Ohio Department of Education.   

Asher, however, also filed the lawsuit to keep the school district from paying Markling, but Binette quashed those efforts this week.  

Huron Schools treasurer Mike Weis said the district is mailing a $50,000 check to Markling. The board will then have to approve, or not, the additional $40,000 in expenses, since the district’s insurance company won’t foot the bill.

State education officials have already conducted termination hearings against Fox, but a hearing officer has yet to issue a recommendation to either fire or retain Fox. The board does not have to follow the advice. 

The days of hearings, held at Sawmill Creek, were closed to the public and spaced out over a period of months.  

The hearings addressed 23 alleged wrongdoings on Fox’s part, including three major allegations: Fox had an improper business relationship with a district vendor; he improperly sought reimbursements for a trip to Arizona; and he was involved in an extramarital affair on school time.

This past week, Binette also issued a key ruling in a defamation lawsuit Fox filed against Sowecke.

Fox alleges Sowecke delivered the Markling report to the Ohio Ethics Commission to intentionally make the document a public record, thus defaming the superintendent. In court documents, Sowecke’s attorneys said any material provided to the ethics commission would have been privileged and exempt from public disclosure. As such, Sowecke would be immune from a defamation lawsuit.

While Binette seemed to agree, there are still too many unanswered questions to simply dismiss the case.  


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