ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Rebecca Bench believes Hess Corp. and Mason Dixon Energy are not giving Belmont County landowners a fair deal at $100 per acre for oil and gas rights, so she wants to be able to renegotiate her contract.
Bench, a practicing attorney in Belmont County, filed a lawsuit against both energy companies in the county's Court of Common Pleas on her own behalf for a contract that she and husband, Kevin Bench, signed with Mason Dixon in December 2008. She claims Mason Dixon had no authority to acquire leases in Ohio and knew that the land was worth far more than the amounts the company agreed to pay her and roughly 300 other property owners in 2008.
During an initial hearing in March, Judge Jennifer Sargus recused herself from the matter, citing a conflict of interest because of a personal relationship with Bench. A form signed by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor shows the case has been assigned to Judge Linton Lewis, who retired from the Perry County Court of Common Pleas.
Records show the Benches signed a $100 per acre lease - a fraction of the $5,900 per acre payment that is the highest known in Belmont County in recent months.
Belmont County Recorder's Office files show that in April 2009, Mason Dixon assigned many of these leases, including Bench's, to Marquette. On Sept. 8, 2011, Hess issued the following press release:
"Hess Corp. announced today it has acquired Marquette Exploration and other leases in Ohio's Utica Shale, boosting its acreage position by 85,000 net acres at a cost of approximately $750 million."
The Recorder's Office shows that on Sept. 16, Marquette officially changed its name to Hess Ohio Resources, a division of Hess Corp.
Bench said upon investigation, she discovered Mason Dixon never had a license to operate a business in Ohio. She states in her complaint that those who operate this way are committing a "misdemeanor of the fourth degree."
Bench also alleges Mason Dixon "made fraudulent representations to plaintiffs regarding the oil to be drilled in the area and the value of the said oil."
Mason Dixon attorney Karen Kahle sees the matter somewhat differently, stating Mason Dixon "no longer claims any interest in the real property at issue." However, Kahle said Lewis denied her motion to dismiss Mason Dixon from the case.
"The case is still in the litigation stage known as pleadings, which in this instance means that the parties are trying, through motions, to get rid of extraneous issues and get to the real claims of each party," Kahle said.
Hess attorney Gina Russo states in her response to Bench's complaint that her client is "without knowledge or sufficient information" to comment on whether Mason Dixon was ever licensed to do business in Ohio, or if company representatives made false representations regarding the value of the land.
Russo also notes that Bench's assertion that doing business in Ohio without a license is a criminal offense "does not state factual allegations."