Coroner, county at odds again

Thomas Eagle, left, and Brown County Coroner Dr. Judith Varnau, appear in court in this file photo.

Brown County Coroner Dr. Judith Varnau is likely heading back to court again, though this time it’s over a dispute for her attorney’s legal fees.

Varnau’s attorney, Thomas Eagle, is requesting more than $18,000 in additional compensation from the Brown County Commissioners for his work defending Varnau in Steve Adamson et. al. v. Judith Varnau, which went through both the Brown County Court of Common Pleas and Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals.

The commissioners, who have paid Eagle $10,800 for his work defending Varnau in the trial court, have countered by claiming that $4,000 is a reasonable compensation for Eagle’s work during the appeal process.

Eagle and the commissioners met recently to try and hash out terms but were unable to reach an agreement, leading to the latest legal maneuvers.

“We’ve come to an impasse over the amount the funds should be, and we’ll let the court resolve that,” Eagle told The Ripley Bee.

On June 19, the commissioners’ attorney, John Woliver, filed a memorandum in response to a motion filed on June 2 by Eagle to recoup fees he believes are unpaid. In Eagle’s motion, he claims the commissioners owe him the entirety of the 29,950.58 in billable hours, of which only 10,800 has been paid, but the commissioners stated they believe the extra $18,150.58 Eagle claims is owed to him is an unreasonable amount.

The commissioners’ memorandum states they’re only willing to pay $4,000 on top of the $10,800 already paid, citing a Brown County Court of Common Pleas order to hire a special prosecuting attorney for Varnau that is at the “discretion of the board of county commissioners,” including terms and fees.

“The appeal, considering that the issues were not terribly substantial on the appeal and he did do the trial so he was familiar with the issues, facts, and evidence, we thought that $4,000 was a reasonable upper limit to put on this,” Woliver told the Bee. “It also recognizes that the commissioners don’t have this massive pocket of which to pay public officials attorneys as they do what seems to be intra-county battles, which are more personality and ego and self benefit than anything.”

The commissioners originally agreed with Eagle to pay him a maximum of $10,000 for the trial court work, but they gave him an additional $800 for his work anyway.

“We let him have a little override on the $800, but he’s wanting that $18,000 to cover the appeals court case that he had,” Brown County Commissioner Daryll Gray told the Bee. ” We’re not willing to pay that and we went back and told him he had to get a court order for that. We said we’ll give him $4,000, we were advised on that.”

The motions are filed in connection with the now-defeated complaint against Varnau filed by Steve Adamson and his family on April 16, 2014. The Adamsons alleged that Varnau committed multiple cases of misfeasance, nonfeasance, and malfeasance in her position as county coroner, and they asked for the Brown County Court of Common Pleas to remove her from her position.

After a two-day trial in May 2014, visiting Judge John Kessler ruled in favor of the coroner. On July 22, the Adamsons, through their lawyer, Tracy Hawkins, filed an appeal to the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals. A trial was held on Nov. 18, 2014, and the court of appeals made its decision on Dec. 30, ruling again in favor of the coroner and asking for the case to be dismissed.

Prior to the start of the trial, Kessler approved a request from Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little to recuse herself due to conflicts of interest, and instead allow the commissioners to appoint a special prosecutor, citing Ohio Revised Code statutes 305.14 (A) and 309.09.

The commissioners agreed to let Varnau retain Eagle as her lawyer, but only pay him at a rate of $180 per hour, as opposed to Eagle’s standard rate of $235 per hour.

In Eagle’s motion, he states that the court of common pleas ordered he be retained and after working both the defenses in the trial court and appeals court, Eagle feels he should be compensated fully. He’s asking for another $18,150.58 from the county.

In the main body of the commissioner’s memorandum memorandum, which is titled “Defendant (Varnau) does not possess an unlimited right to be compensated for her attorney fees in an amount set by defendant or her attorney,” Woliver states that the commissioners don’t have unlimited resources for Varnau’s legal fees, having spent $12,500 in private legal fees for legal battles between Varnau’s husband Dennis and the Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger.

The commissioners’ memorandum requests for the court to agree that the rate of $180 per hour and maximum limit of $4,000 is reasonable.

Woliver believes the case is likely to go to court. If and when it does, Kessler would sit on the bench for the trial.

Reach Daniel Karell at 937-378-6161. Follow him on Twitter @GNDKarell