High-profile people charged with OVI face public perception battle

High-profile people charged with OVI face public perception battle

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Being charged with an OVI can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees, tarnish a person’s reputation and possibly cost the driver their livelihood.

Those high-profile individuals charged with OVI face another challenge: public perception, said Matthew Dixon, a Middletown attorney.

There have been three high-profile OVI cases recently in Butler County: Middletown’s Fire Chief Paul Lolli; Ohio Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton; and West Chester police officer Marc Madama.

Of those three, only Lolli’s case has been settled.

Dixon said some prosecutors seek stiffer penalties against someone who is well known in the community because they don’t want people to think they “cut a favorable deal.”

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser told the Journal-News last week that “there will be zero special treatment given” to Retherford’s case by his office.

Typically, based on advice from their legal team, prominent people charged with OVI, or any crime, don’t want to talk to the media, said Bill Brewer, communications professor at Miami University and member of the Public Relations Society of America.

Making a “no comment” is a mistake, Brewer said.

“We all know that ‘no comment’ doesn’t set well with the public,” he said. “Some statement is needed.”

Instead, Brewer suggests being honest and upfront.

“Say as much as you can without jeopardizing a fair trial,” he said. “The bottom line is: Honesty is the best because the truth always will come out. I know that sounds simple, but it’s true.”

People need to understand what is front-page news today will be forgotten in a few weeks because the news cycle “is very brief,” Brewer said.

Local government officials say every situation is looked at “on a case-by-case basis,” and any employee matter would involved the law director.

If a city employee’s job requires he or she have a valid driver’s license, they likely would be placed on administrative leave, said Fairfield Assistant City Manager Greg Preece. However, some incidents could result in termination, though, “It’s difficult to jump to termination.”

But termination could result if the offense was “pretty egregious” or they may be forced to terminate if the employee’s job is dependant on driving a vehicle and any conviction makes them un-insurable.

In the case of a police or firefighter, or any other union member, that would follow a different protocol, including a pre-disciplinary hearing if a loss of pay is possible.

Fairfield Twp. Administrator Julie Vonderhaar said any employee disciplinary action would go through the board of trustees.

“The board who has the authority to hire and fire, so it really all comes down to the facts of the situation and the position of the board,” she said. “We try to detail as much as possible the facts.”

Dixon said sometimes when a person is charged with OVI, and they have a “clean” driving record, that charge can be reduced to reckless operation. Dixon said that’s typically a one-time deal.

“You don’t get two bites of that apple,” he said.

The cost of fighting an OVI charge can range between a few hundred dollars and several thousands, Dixon said. He said some attorney specialize in OVI, so their fees are smaller. The more time an attorney spends on a case, higher the cost, Dixon said.

He said OVI charges are “very challenging” because of all the circumstances involved. He said it depends whether the driver caused an accident, their driving record, whether they submitted to a breathalyser, and if they have been charged before.

The city of Middletown suspended Lolli five days without paying after officials read the report from the State Highway Patrol and watched the video of the arrest; he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless operation and his speeding charge was dropped; he was ordered to attend three-day alcohol evaluation classes; and his license was suspended for 180 days except for work driving privileges. He also was fined $250 plus court costs.

The city also announced if Lolli was involved in another alcohol incident — on or off the job — he would be terminated, said Les Landen, law director.

A trooper with the Ohio State Highway Patrol stopped Lolli on Dec. 16 about a block from his home on Central Avenue.

Because Lolli works for the city, a special prosecutor, Steve Runge, was brought in, and Lolli was represented by attorney Paris Ellis. After the hearing, Lolli and his attorney refused comment.

Retherford is set to appear in Butler County Area II Court on Wednesday for a preliminary hearing. He was found allegedly passed out on Sunday, March 13 in his pickup truck while it was idling parked in a McDonald’s drive-thru.

Retherford, 33, is charged with OVI, a misdemeanor, and improperly handling a firearm, a fourth-degree felony. A loaded handgun, which was in its holster, was found in the center armrest console of his truck.

Two Republican organizations — the Butler County Republican Party and the Ohio Republican Party — have called for his resignation.

When an elected official is arrested, it’s the elected body they are a member of that could handle any disciplinary actions. In the case of Retherford, if he’s convicted of a felony, he would be immediately removed from office, according to the office of the Ohio Speaker of the House.

Madama, 41, of Loveland, was charged with OVI and driving in marked lanes after troopers stopped him at this past Sunday morning on Ohio 4 near Ross Road in Fairfield, according to court records. Madama was scheduled to be arraigned earlier this week in Fairfield Municipal Court, but the case has been continued until April.

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