Ohio's Democratic attorney general candidate is facing a potential conflict of interest that could affect his ability to prosecute the pharmaceutical industry in the state's lawsuit over the opioid crisis if he is elected.
Former U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach has professional ties to a lawyer for one of five pharmaceutical companies sued by the state, a review by The Associated Press found.
Attorney Carole Rendon served as Dettelbach's first assistant U.S. Attorney and briefly succeeded him when he resigned as U.S. Attorney in Cleveland. He later recruited her to his team at BakerHostetler, a law firm where health care industry cases are among his specialties.
Rendon represents Endo Pharmaceuticals in the lawsuit that Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine brought last year against five drugmakers.
The suit alleges the drug companies were complicit in causing Ohio's addictions epidemic by intentionally misleading patients about the dangers of painkillers and promoting benefits of the drugs not backed by science.
It almost certainly would continue as one of the office's highest priorities after DeWine leaves next year due to term limits. Dettelbach faces Republican State Auditor Dave Yost for the job in November in one of the nation's most closely watched attorney general races.
Yet Dettelbach could be forced to recuse himself from the case if he's been privy to inside information on Endo's defense.
It wouldn't be the first time.
Dettelbach had to recuse himself from direct involvement in the years-long Cuyahoga County corruption probe when he was U.S. Attorney. That was because BakerHostetler, his then previous employer, represented a company implicated in the sweeping investigation, which ended in the convictions of more than 60 public officials, employees and contractors.
Campaign spokeswoman Liz Doherty said Dettelbach has maintained a legal and monetary firewall in the case and has "every intention" of prosecuting it if he's elected attorney general.
Dettelbach would "consult ethics advisers and ethics rules to ensure that all laws are complied with in making any and all decisions regarding these lawsuits," Doherty said in a statement to the AP. "Steve is committed to leading the fight against the opioid crisis, as he's done for years as a prosecutor."
Former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, a Republican, said if Dettelbach's ties to Rendon or BakerHostetler prevent him from being involved in the office's top case, it could present challenges for him.
"The duty of loyalty and confidentiality to clients and former clients is a cornerstone of the law," she said, adding that Dettelbach could face a situation where "he would not be able to be engaged in practical decisions on the case or make comments to the public informing them of what the intent of the office was with regard to that case."
Montgomery made clear that she was speaking hypothetically. She said the court would have to decide whether Dettelbach should be disqualified based on the facts.
But she said guiding the office's response to its biggest case — in her instance, Ohio's $34 billion tobacco settlement — is central to the job.
"As attorney general and the head of the office, you want to be captain of that ship," she said.