Local Politics: Ohio Legislature fumbles Strauss sex abuse bill

HB 249 is the rare piece of legislation that exhibits both cruelty and a disdain for governance

Craig Calcaterra
State Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township), left,  shown during a Criminal Justice committee meeting at the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday, April 22, 2021.

There are countless instances where one can point to the Ohio Legislature's disdain for the notion of governance, with its aggressive moves to prevent the state from combating the pandemic chief among them. There are likewise no shortage of instances in which the legislature has shown that it cares little for the injured and the vulnerable, ranging from our state's so-called "tort reform" laws, which serve to protect wrongdoers at the expense of their victims, and legislation passed that makes it more difficult to combat police brutality

Rarely, however, do both of these degenerate attributes manifest themselves in a single bill. The Ohio House's recent handling of 2019's HB 249 did just that, however. 

The Ohio Capital Journal reported last week that HB 249, which would have altered the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases involving Ohio State sports physician Richard Strauss, was never intended by legislators to pass. Rather, it was a performative act in which legislators heard testimony on multiple occasions — and generated considerable publicity — in an effort, they claim, to put pressure on Ohio State to settle with Strauss' hundreds of victims out of court. Legislators have openly admitted it. This is from a letter House Majority Leader Bill Seitz sent to Strauss' victims in response to requests that he work to bring HB 249 up for a vote:

I do not support a resurrection of HB 249, however, for the following reasons. HB 249 was intended to apply pressure to Ohio State to come to the table and make meaningful settlement offers. It achieved its goal in that regard as very handsome settlements sums were offered by Ohio State to the claimants, and many claimants made the decision to accept the sums offered despite the expiration of the statute of limitations many decades before.

The man who was Speaker of the House at the time the bill was introduced, Larry Householder, told the Ohio Capital Journal that "the reality is that the bill was introduced to provide the victims with a public forum to tell their stories and hope to persuade the university to settle with victims and bring some degree of closure to a very bad situation." 

Except no one told that to Strauss' victims. They believed that the Legislature was genuinely attempting to help them seek justice for what had been done to them, not attempting to manage a settlement between them and a university with a sophisticated lobbying operation behind it and an interest in limiting its exposure. Because they believed that, they bared their souls, sharing the most intimate details of what had been done to them in a public forum with gaggles of reporters and cameras recording their every word. Many of them are now furious, and even humiliated, to learn that the Legislature never intended to pass the law allowing their lawsuits to go forward.   

In the end, of course, not only did the Legislature misleadingly and needlessly inspire victims to relive their trauma, it did not manage to do what Seitz and Householder now say they intended, which was to inspire settlements helping Strauss' victims. At least not good ones.

As the Ohio Capital Journal noted in its report, Ohio State ended up paying Strauss victims less than half, on average, than victims in a similar sexual abuse case at USC recently received in settlement, and less than one-third of what victims of Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar received in their cases. The reason is obvious: The Michigan and California legislatures actually passed laws allowing those sexual abuse cases to proceed. Ohio State, in contrast, could be confident that, if it held out and fought the cases in court, the Legislature's inaction would mean that it could eventually beat any lawsuit, thereby eliminating the incentive to make larger settlements. One is under no pressure to do the right thing if no pressure is applied to them to do so in the first place. 

The purpose of the Legislature is to pass laws, not to disingenuously go through the motions of doing so in a secret effort to broker settlements. The purpose of seeking public testimony — especially in emotional matters involving trauma and hardship — is to make a public record of the need for legislation and to demonstrate legislators' commitment not only to hearing the grievances of the citizens they serve, but to work to redress such grievances as best they possibly can. In the case of HB 249, the Ohio Legislature completely abdicated their responsibilities in each regard.

It callously used Strauss’ victims as props. It never intended to use its own power, as Michigan and California did, to right demonstrable wrongs, making this the most recent case to leave us asking just whose interests, exactly, the Legislature serves.