Seven Questions: Ron O'Brien's Exit Interview
For the first time in more than two decades, a new person will lead the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office. Republican Ron O’Brien, the longest-serving prosecutor in county history, will step down at the end of the year, making way for Democrat Gary Tyack, a retired appellate judge who defeated O’Brien in the November general election.
Tyack’s victory came despite a low-key campaign, health problems (he suffered a stroke in September) and a significant fundraising gap (O’Brien’s haul was three times larger than Tyack’s). But the changing of the guard wasn’t a complete shock. In an increasingly Democratic county—and with a hugely unpopular presidential candidate in Franklin County at the top of the ticket in 2020—it was obvious that O’Brien would need to fight to hold onto his office no matter who the Democrats ran against him. “The handwriting was on the wall regarding the vulnerability of Republicans, even though I viewed myself as a strong Republican in Franklin County,” O’Brien says.
Indeed, the loss ends a storied political and law enforcement career. While cleaning out his office recently, O’Brien, a notorious pack rat, came across his initial appointment paperwork as a legal intern in 1972 by then Franklin County Prosecutor George Smith at $3.50 an hour. Two years later, O’Brien was sworn in as an assistant prosecutor on a Friday, and on the following Monday, he was sitting second chair on his first murder trial.
O’Brien became a true believer, spending his entire career in law enforcement—either at the Columbus City Attorney’s Office (which handles misdemeanor offenses in the city) or at the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office. In 1996, voters elected him county prosecutor for the first time. He went on to win reelection five times, often facing no opposition. He also continued to stay busy in the courtroom, personally trying cases, a rarity for a big city elected prosecutor. He estimates he’s handled more than 80 jury trials throughout his career. While Columbus city attorney, he even argued a child pornography case before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning a 6-3 ruling. “I could have been appointed as a judge over the years to vacancies and then ran for election, but I like the advocacy side of the courtroom as opposed to being the referee,” O’Brien says.
Last week, Columbus Monthly spoke with O’Brien about his career and what he might do next. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Why was it important to you to continue to try cases while the elected prosecutor?
When I started here, there were 25 assistant prosecutors. Now we have about 115, and they’re spread across civil, juvenile, criminal, appellate, tax collection. And I think if you’re supervising 25 or 115 lawyers as the elected official and if you tell them how you think a case ought to be handled or if you are asking them to seek your advice on plea bargains, you don’t want them walking out of the boss’s office and shaking their head saying, “It’s been 20 years since this joker’s been in the courtroom, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” So, if you’re an active prosecutor as the elected prosecutor, you get a better handle for what’s going on in the courtroom.
It’s also what I have done my entire career. Even though I may not be doing it daily, that’s what I think the job of prosecutor is, and, frankly, I think that’s what the public wants to see. I think that’s what the public thinks a prosecutor is. It’s not somebody sitting in a chair in an office signing papers and having press conferences.Plus, I enjoy it. That’s where I started, and that’s why I came here in the first place, and that’s why I’ve stayed here.
Who’s the best prosecutor you ever worked with?
I always go back to Mike Miller [O’Brien’s predecessor]. When I was law student here, he was an assistant prosecutor, and I tried cases with Mike and with Jim O’Grady who was the father of Judge Jim O’Grady who’s on the Municipal Court now. Mike is just an outstanding trial lawyer, outstanding prosecutor, and Jim O’Grady is probably the best cross examiner of any prosecutor that I’ve seen over the years. He had a very almost innate knack of cross-examining witnesses and particularly defendants.
How about the best defense attorney you’ve ever faced off against?
That’s a hard question, but I think the names that arise are the ones that would be familiar. Sam Shamansky and his cohort, [the late] Bill Meeks, and Mark Collins nowadays are three outstanding criminal defense attorneys.
You’ve talked about the impact Donald Trump had on your race. How do you feel about the direction he’s taking the Republican Party?
I just want to comment on how I think it may have affected my race. I think he got 33, 34 percent of the vote. It’s hard when you’re down ticket no matter what race you’re in, to outperform the top of the ticket. The last time I looked at the numbers, and they may have been the unofficial ones, I got more than 70 thousand votes in Franklin County than the top of the ticket did. In any race, any year, whether it’s gubernatorial or a presidential cycle, I think no one anywhere outperforms the top of the ticket by 15 points and 70 thousand-plus votes.
During the campaign, Gary Tyack criticized you for your handling of shootings by police officers. Did that have an impact on the election?
I don’t think so, given the demographics and the [Democratic] slate card and the president. It wasn’t highly publicized because even before his stroke, he was not on the campaign trail, and he was not on it at all afterwards, and I changed the policy of handling police shootings back in June after the Downtown riots. [O’Brien agreed to appoint an outside prosecutor to handle shootings involving police officers rather than having a grand jury review the cases.] There was a perception of unfairness and a perception that cases weren’t being properly reviewed and handled, even though it’s not my decision; it’s the decision of a grand jury. But I think the result would have been the same because of the other factors.
What are you going to do next?
I am working on a number of things. I’ve talked to the attorney general, the governor, as well as a few law firms. So I’m still sorting that out. I am not going to retire. I actually maxed out on my PERS [Public Employee Retirement System] pension last term, so I could have retired at 100 percent of my salary four years ago. I’m a Type A personality, and I enjoy practicing law, and so I’m going to work in an arena that fits what I have an interest in.
How about becoming a defense attorney?
I would say that’s not likely—certainly not in cases involving violent crime. If there’s some white-collar crime, I might consider that, but again, I’m not sure how likely that is.