The Ohio Ethics Commission is looking into the business dealings of a Marietta College professor serving as a member of the governor-appointed Ohio Oil and Gas Commission, at his request.
Environmental advocates have expressed concern over the actions taken by Robert Chase but it was Chase's actions that prompted Ohio Oil and Gas Commission director Linda Osterman to inform the Ohio Ethics Commission, she said.
"He came to me, and then we worked together on setting forth a disclosure statement of what his interests are so I would know those and could speak to the ethics commission," Osterman said.
The Ohio Oil and Gas Commission is designed to serve as a mediator between any person, or business, that claims to be adversely affected by any order by the Chief of the Division of Mineral Resources and Management.
Members of the commission will then meet with both sides and allow arguments to be presented. The members must then decide based on the regulations if the chief is acting properly.
"We cannot make that decision based on who we know or how we feel. There are regulations," Chase said.
Chase serves as the public's representative, as defined by Section 1509.35 of the Ohio Revised Code, but noted the job is less about representing than interpreting.
"This goes for all of us that serve on the commission. Our role is not to defend the public interests or defend the companies' interests. Our role is to strictly interpret the oil and gas law and regulation," Chase said.
On Jan. 13, Chase went to Osterman and informed her that he felt he needed to recuse himself from a January case coming before the commission.
"I go through ethics training in my role on the oil and gas commission. If I sense there's a conflict of interest I'm the first to say 'I may have a conflict of interest here,'" Chase said.
That case involved Chesapeake Energy and a group of landowners in Carroll County. Chase served as a consultant with the Carroll County group, which was to pay his fees, but Chesapeake Energy agreed to pay all fees for the people involved in putting the deal together, he said.
Chase said that is a common occurrence in the oil and gas industry, but he felt since he knew the parties involved he should recuse himself from the case. The case ended up not coming before the commission.
Marietta resident Harry Coffey, 84, a longtime environmentalist, said he agreed with Chase's decision to recuse himself from the case but didn't have a problem with him serving on the commission.
"If he's backing out of a group because he has a vested interest, I like that. That's the kind of honesty we don't see enough of," Coffey said.
As the chair of Marietta College's Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology, Chase also receives restricted gifts from companies such as Chevron to use for the Marietta College program. Chase mentioned those items to Osterman as well in an effort to avoid any possible conflict of interest.
"Now that these companies are active in Ohio, I think I need to let the ethics commission know that companies provide gifts to the program," Chase said.
Any time there is potential for a conflict of interest among Ohio Oil and Gas Commission members and whether the member should recuse themselves the information is sent to the Ohio Ethics Commission, which will then issue an advisory opinion on which cases that member should recuse themselves from.
"This happens with (Ohio Oil and Gas) Commission members. It's not tremendously unusual for a member to have to recuse themselves from certain cases," Osterman said.
M. Howard Petricoff, who serves on the commission as one "learned in oil and gas law" works for Columbus-based Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP and frequently recuses himself due to familiarity with companies represented by his firm, Chase said.
Other members of the commission include Karen H. Fryer of Ohio Wesleyan University and Jerry Jordan. The position representing a major petroleum company is vacant according to the commission website.
Chase has participated in 13 hearings before the commission and only once has felt he needed to recuse himself since being appointed by Ted Strickland in 2008.
Chase said he feels the concern expressed over his membership of the board is in fact a misunderstanding of the purpose of the commission.
"These people that say I shouldn't be on there as the public's representative don't even know what the role of commissioners are," Chase said. "We are selected as a representative from that group, but not to represent that group."
In none of Chase's dealings has the commission felt a need to question if he should recuse himself, Osterman said.
"There haven't been any problems," she said.