Where Are They Now: Jim Petro
Looking Back on the Career of Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro
By Bill Perry
“Wrongful criminal conviction is much more frequent than most Americans believe. The thought of imprisoned innocent people haunted me. I became determined to try to do something about it.” - Jim Petro, Former Attorney General of Ohio
With a long and distinguished career as a public official, former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, a young attorney for Standard Oil Co., got his start in public service 28 years ago at the local level in Rocky River as the city’s law director. From local government, he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives where he served for two terms representing the western suburbs of Cuyahoga County.
Bob Klaffky, a Columbus-based lobbyist and consultant, was involved with Petro’s first unsuccessful campaign for State Auditor in 1990 working on policy and campaign strategy. “I first knew Jim politically and then got to know him personally. He has always been more in the establishment lane in GOP politics. He wants to make things work and has a strong philosophy for justice. He is very focused on getting people to seek the truth.”
Klaffky recalled that Petro got into the Auditor's race late and was actually thinking about running for Attorney General in 1990. He ran against a 30-year incumbent. “We lost to Tom Ferguson who had been an institution in Ohio politics. It was really tough to take him on, but almost immediately after election day, Jim realized he wanted to try again,” he said. “I always say when you lose elections you learn more than when you win. It makes you think about what you did, and what you can do better in the future. You become more of a political campaign practitioner the next time around.”
Klaffky said when Petro lost the State Auditor race, he was appointed to a vacancy on the Cuyahoga County Commission early in 1991, then was elected a year later. “Governor Voinovich named Virgil Brown, who at that time was a Cuyahoga County Commissioner, to become Lottery Director. “Jim became the obvious choice to replace Brown. He was one of three commissioners, the only Republican, but he emerged as commission president with the support of the two Democrats on the board. It was a tribute to him because he was liked by Democrats and Republicans and worked well with both of them on the commission.” Petro is the last Republican to have been elected countywide in Cuyahoga County.
Melissa Vasil first met Petro when he was appointed to the Cuyahoga County Commissioner seat. This fateful meeting lead to Vasil working for Petro throughout his career in public service. “I worked in the Cuyahoga County Commission office in high school, when Petro was appointed county commissioner. I didn’t really know him then. I went to Ohio University and worked in the auditor’s office in Athens.”
With that experience, Vasil joined Petro’s staff as his assistant in the State Auditor’s office in Columbus, and then Attorney General’s office. “Everything was honest about him. I was raised with a very strong work ethic, and watching him on the go and full of energy, he motivated you. You knew if he got elected, he would make a difference.”
In 1994, the State Auditor seat was open and this time the incumbent declined to run for reelection. That was a big year for the statewide Republican ticket in Ohio, and nationwide. Perseverance paid off and Petro won and went to Columbus to be sworn in as the State Auditor.
Petro served as State Auditor from 1995 to 2002, providing financial and performance oversight to Ohio’s universities and other state agencies, and as Ohio Attorney General from 2003 to 2006, when he, among many other things, served as the chief legal officer to the state’s universities.
In the fall of 2002, Petro was elected Attorney General and then successfully defended an Ohio law banning late-term abortions in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and won by a vote of 9 to 0. “I remember this case and talking to Jim. He wanted to do it,” said Klaffky who noted Petro personally presented the case before the Supreme Court. “He is a very good lawyer and nationally recognized litigator. If you want to win against Jim, then you better be prepared. He wasn’t a politician who happened to be a lawyer. Jim was a practicing lawyer and it is something he is very passionate about.”
Attorney General Jim Petro
Klaffky said a case using DNA evidence was a revelation for Petro of what can be. “Jim felt many prosecutors had lost their way. They think it is all about wins; but he felt the job was about seeking truth. Then seek justice. He had to rethink his position on the death penalty and the criminal justice system. It gave him a deep perspective as he realized the system can work against people,” he said.
The DNA case involved wrongly convicted Clarence Elkins. He was released from prison after DNA testing proved his innocence. Once accused of raping his niece and murdering his mother-in-law, Elkins was exonerated after DNA proved Earl Mann to be the actual perpetrator of the crime. Elkins' case was championed by then Attorney General Petro in partnership with the Ohio Innocence Project.
“Here he is the chief prosecutor of the state and he became very frustrated with a prosecutor who would not give up on the case, even though DNA evidence was very clear. It took extraordinary effort to free him. Finding the truth is important to Jim,” Klaffky emphasized.
He noted that Petro also would not accept the argument that using DNA evidence cost too much. “Nobody would argue that DNA evidence was not accurate, it was too costly. The cost argument never flew with Jim.”
In 2006, Petro ran for the Republican nomination for Governor of the state of Ohio. He was joined on the ticket by former State Senator Joy Padgett. She first joined Petro's campaign for Governor as a regional chair and worked on his behalf while Petro and Lt. Governor candidate Phil Heimlich campaigned.
In January 2006, following Heimlich's decision to leave the ticket in order to run for re-election as a Hamilton County Commissioner, Petro named Padgett his running mate as candidate for Lt. Governor. “I respected him and his commitment to economic development and was looking forward to helping him making changes in Ohio,” Padgett recalled. “What struck me about the campaign was the belief that Jim would have been an outstanding Governor.”
Vasil added that Petro engaged everyone he knew around the state by their first names. "He has an amazing memory," She said. "He would leave you wondering how could he remember everyone’s names he came across?" But his memory didn’t stop just with names. Petro also knows how to get around Ohio in ways most people don’t, according to his former chief of staff, Lana Ruebel. “Something unique about Jim is he had a memory, where he remembers everything.”
Driving in Ohio, Petro did not need a roadmap. “He was a human GPS. He knows all of the back roads. So if you are driving him, he really didn’t let you drive,” Ruebel said. “He drives the driver, because he knows the roads better than anybody. Anyone who has ever ridden or driven with Jim will tell you he has this GPS in his head.”
Looking back Klaffky said the 2006 gubernatorial campaign was an early indicator of changes to come in politics, both in Ohio and nationally. “That race for Governor was revealing in how the party was moving, and then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell had the following of the base. Now you see it more clearly, but there was something out there looking for change, the early signs of what became the Tea Party. Petro lost in the primary to Blackwell.”
After the 2006 election, Jim got back into doing what he loved, litigating cases. Petro worked with several law firms and practiced law while enjoying spending some time with his family and friends.
In 2010, Petro and his wife, Nancy Petro, coauthored the book “False Justice – the Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent,” which addresses eight myths that lead to wrongful convictions in the American criminal justice system. “False Justice” follows true stories while defining legislative reforms to a system that, Petro believes, places innocent people in prison.
In partnership with the Ohio Innocence Project and others, they have traveled the country and even the world helping to educate everyone from law school students, law enforcement officials and officers of the court, to legal scholars and news media — dispelling the myths that wrongfully convict the innocent. The book has now been translated into Chinese with the Chinese language addition published by Peking University Press. The English language version has been recently updated with some current information and re-published by Routledge in the US and other English speaking countries. Routledge is a large publisher with a significant presence in the academic market.
Public service is always Jim’s passion, and in 2011, when Governor John R. Kasich was seeking a top notch Chancellor of The Board of Regents, overseeing the state’s colleges and universities, his old friend and respected colleague Jim Petro was a natural. Jim accomplished much as Chancellor, including a very difficult to manage matriculation process – aligning credit hours between schools, and creating some uniformity in higher education. Like all of his assignments, Petro excelled at this position, but relinquished the job in 2013 to devote more time to family and his passion of assisting the innocent to justice.
So, what is former Attorney General Jim Petro up to today these days? He remains very actively involved in wrongful conviction presentations, recently visiting the Lucas County (Toledo) Bar Association as he and his wife Nancy Petro continue their strong advocacy in this important work. Jim is currently named as co-counsel in about five innocence cases in courts throughout Ohio.
Jim Petro and his wife Nancy
While Jim enjoys this advocacy, he and Nancy are largely retired and very proud of it. They are traveling and spending as much time as possible with their two children John and Corbin, and four grandchildren — all boys.