Government and Corporations Collude Against the People: Ohio Is a Corporate State

It’s no exaggeration to say that we live in a corporate state, where the country, the states and our local communities are indirectly governed by those who control wealthy corporations. But belief in the myth of an American Way of Life based on the authority of self-governing people and the consent of the governed has deep roots. What will it take to convince the skeptics that those roots have been torn up and that democracy is withering on the vine?

There is a growing undercurrent of discontent over the ability of corporate money to choose the political candidates we’re allowed to vote for. That discontent extends to the creation and hustling of state and federal laws by corporate front groups, like ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce, that we and not they will have to obey. Hypocrisies such as corporateexemptions from federal, state and local taxes, on the pretense that this will help “create jobs” for the citizens who do haveto pay taxes, and corporate exemptions from environmental laws like those that make up the “Halliburton Loophole” for oil and gas corporations, are noticed and complained about from time to time. But few say out-loud that to be exempt from laws that apply to everyone else is to be above the law. And to be above the law is to be outside the law – an “outlaw” in fact.

Judicial decisions like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby have people scratching their heads looking for the justice in the decrees of Supreme Court justices. But so-far all these connivances against democracy have failed to yield a general outcry that carries with it not just the rolling thunder of diffused and de-fused discontent, but also the lightening strike of popular outrage.

Maybe Ohio’s state-subsidized corporate attack on people attempting to govern in their own communities will do the trick.

The story in Ohio is a dandy. Like communities in a handful of other states, people in the cities and counties of the buckeyestate have decided not to idly accept what corporate interests would like us to believe is inevitable: the complete silencing of the people when their interests come into conflict with corporate interests. People in the cities of Athens, Youngstown, Broadview Heights and Columbus, as well as in Medina, Athens, Meigs and Fulton Counties, have flexed their right of local self-governance and proposed new local laws to secure community rights above corporate power and privilege.

In November, 2012, when folks in Broadview Heights concluded that ninety fracking wells sited in back yards, playgrounds and near schools in their residential community had wreaked more than enough damage to their rights and quality of life, they voted to enact a Community Bill of Rights amendment to their home rule charter by a 67 percent margin. The measure outlawed the siting of new extraction wells.

Soon afterward, attorneys John K Keller and Lisa Babish Forbes of the prestigious law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, LLP, were brought in by Bass Energy and Ohio Valley Energy, to sue Broadview Heights in Cuyahoga County Court. They were successful in their attempt to overturn the will of the solid majority of voters. During that legal contest, the mayor and city council weakly “defended” the Community Bill of Rights in court, after opposing it all the way to the ballot, while Judge Michael K. Astrab denied the right of the petitioners for the amendment to be parties in the lawsuit. The peoplenever got a chance to argue that the drilling companies were violating their basic rights under the protection of state permits. And their city officials swept the issue under the bed. The people were effectively silenced. The people running Bass Energy and Ohio Valley Energy Corporations were not.

This year, when the Secretary of State of Ohio, Jon Husted, received complaints against three proposed Community Bill of Rights county charters being placed on the ballot for the November 2015 election, he claimed “unfettered authority” tonullify the successfully submitted petitions of thousands of residents in those counties. He claimed to be “unmoved” by the petitioners’ plea that their state constitutional right to amend and alter their county governments be respected.

When the people of Fulton, Athens and Medina Counties turned to the state Supreme Court for relief from this violation of their democratic rights, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, various arms of the Farm Bureau, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio and other interested corporate front groups were joined by the OhioOil and Gas Association and the Ohio Gas Association, represented by attorneys John K Keller and Lisa Babish Forbes, the same Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, LLP lawyers employed by Bass Energy and Ohio Valley Energy to nullify the will of 67 percent of Broadview Heights voters.

Meanwhile, citizens in Youngstown, OH successfully placed a Community Bill of Rights banning fracking and related infrastructure on the ballot four different times, beginning in 2012, despite attempts by corporate players to block thepeople’s vote. When they couldn’t block it from appearing on the ballot, the friends of fossil fuel spent heavily to defeat the measure each time it went to a vote. One of their key arguments against the measure claimed that the City would have tospend tens of thousands of dollars defending against lawsuits brought by the energy corporations to overturn the measure, if passed. And they claimed that the amendment’s proponents would be responsible to the taxpayers for costing them so much money in legal fees to defend the Community Bill of Rights against those same corporations warning against adopting the community rights protections. Those energy corporations, “good corporate neighbors” as their public relations departments like to say, would be blameless.

This year is different. Pointing to Secretary Husted’s “unfettered authority” (as he put it) to ignore the limits of his power in deference to state laws and the constitution, members of the Mahoning County Board of Elections voted to keep the Youngstown amendment proposal off the ballot. In defending their anti-democracy stance against the people they work for, the Mahoning County Board didn’t turn to the county prosecutor, who gets paid for his legal services to the County. In a conversation with attorneys for the amendment proponents, the prosecutor stated that because the Board of Elections declined to follow his explicit advice to put the Community Bill of Rights on the ballot, he told them he has a conflict and they would have to retain counsel. And so they hired, you guessed it, John K Keller and Lisa Babish Forbes, the same Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, LLP lawyers employed by the Oil and Gas Associations to support Jon Husted’s “unfettered authority” to block the constitutional right of the people to change their county governments. Recall that Keller and Babish Forbes were also hired by Bass Energy and Ohio Valley Energy to nullify the will of 67 percent of Broadview Heights voters.

As of this writing, the Mahoning County Board of Elections has set aside $25,000 to pay the same attorneys working for the oil and gas industry for their services to stand against the right of the people in Mahoning County to vote on a legally petitioned measure. The same taxpayer money that industry PR flacks claimed would have to be spent to defend the Community Bill of Rights if it passed is now being spent to ensure the people never even get to vote on it. Apparently, spending public money to cover legal fees to protect the interests of wealthy corporations is acceptable. Using the people’s money to protect their own rights is not.

If only that were the end of it. But the manure pile of disinformation and PR balderdash hiding the corporate state in plain sight is beginning to erode. The stark truth is gradually being exposed. When the people of Fulton, Athens and Medina Counties challenged Jon Husted’s unilateral decision to strip their democratic rights, he didn’t turn to the Ohio Attorney General’s office to defend his imperial claim. The attorney general is, of course, paid by the people to represent agents of the state. Instead, Secretary Husted hired the law firm of Bricker and Eckler, the same company that is representing Spectra Energy, whose plans to build the “Nexus Pipeline” would cross two of the counties (Fulton and Medina) that the county charters Mr. Husted hopes to kill were drafted in part to prevent. This is the same law firm that has regularly gone to court toharass residents in counties throughout Ohio with the threat of lawsuits if residents don’t allow the Spectra surveyors onto their property to lay the route for a pipeline that no one wants. Many of those land owners are members of the Farm Bureau, which is asking the state Supreme Court to stand up for the gas drillers – not the farmers. The briefs filed by the Farm Bureau argue that the proposed County Charters are anti-agriculture. But will the court hear from real farmers, or just agribusiness front groups like the Farm Bureau?

Not only does the state strip the people of their inalienable right of local self-government by preempting municipalities from adopting local laws that govern corporate behavior when they come to town. Not only does the state issue permits to allow wealthy corporations to violate the rights of the people under color of law. Now the state and its officers and subdivisions are using the same powerhouse law firms, and the same attorneys from those firms, to wield the law against the people, on behalf of those corporations, and is either using taxpayer dollars to pay these law firms or, worse yet, getting their services for free. To say we live under a corporate state is not hyperbole. It is a simple fact.