December 18, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
29°F
test

Lawsuit filed against Judge Berta days before primary

ELYRIA — Lorain County Domestic Relations Judge David Berta was sued Friday by a former magistrate for sexual harassment.

The lawsuit, which was filed in county Common Pleas Court, accuses the judge of making sexually charged and inappropriate comments about former Magistrate

Lucinda McConnell, who walked off the job in April. It also names the county Domestic Relations Court as a defendant.

Berta, who has denied wrongdoing since the allegations first surfaced last year, said Friday that the lawsuit appears to be politically motivated. He accused McConnell of backing Lorain attorney Lisa Swenski, his opponent in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

“Both my opponent and Ms. McConnell are counting on the public to be uninformed and rush to judgment about these malicious accusations,” Berta said in a statement. “I trust that the public knows better and can clearly see the ridiculousness of these allegations both on the merit and on the timing of this lawsuit.”

McConnell referred a request for comment to her attorney, Caryn Groedel, who could not be reached for comment Friday. Groedel has previously said the lawsuit isn’t politically motivated.

Swenski denied that she had colluded with McConnell.

“We state without reservation that we had absolutely nothing to do with the filing of this latest sexual harassment allegation against Dave Berta and we look forward to continuing to run a strong and positive campaign,” Swenski said in an emailed statement.

McConnell, a former assistant county prosecutor, began working for Berta when he first took the bench in 2007. She served in that capacity until she abruptly quit on April 19.

According to the lawsuit, during McConnell’s time working for Berta, the judge harassed her and made comments about her, including commenting on the size of her breasts and suggesting that she would perform oral sex on him.

The lawsuit accused Berta of saying that “she’s a runner, so she’s got no sex drive” and that “Lucinda can’t have children; her uterus is dried up.”

Berta also allegedly referred to McConnell as a “badge bunny” when talking to his staff and called his female staff members and women with cases in his court “whores” and “stupid (expletive),” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit accused Berta of screaming at McConnell for mistakes made by her male co-workers and that he “consistently exhibited intimidating and threatening behavior towards (McConnell), such as throwing chairs and flipping over a table while screaming at her.”

Berta denied that he made the comments or engaged in the behavior described in the lawsuit.

“Ms. McConnell did not personally hear or observe most of the allegations in her complaint,” Berta said in his statement. “Instead, the allegations are mostly second-hand accounts of conversations I allegedly had with my former bailiff James Maschari. These allegations are false and will be fought with vigor.”

Berta said Maschari, who walked off the job in March 2010 after an argument with Berta over his late return from lunch, has a vendetta against him and is actively seeking to thwart his re-election bid.

Maschari, who ran Berta’s 2006 campaign, on Friday acknowledged that he talked to McConnell’s lawyers, but denied that he was behind the lawsuit. He also said he isn’t involved with Swenski’s campaign.

“He’s like a kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and he’s trying to blame someone else,” Maschari said.

Berta said McConnell filed a complaint against him last year with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which conducted an investigation and declined to pursue the matter.

Groedel said previously that the EEOC typically only conducts a limited investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct before deciding whether to pursue a complaint. Most such investigations result in the EEOC declining to take the matter any further and the agency issues a “right to sue” letter to those who have made the allegations, Groedel has said.

Berta said his attorneys and insurance lawyers working for the county also reviewed the allegations and found no merit to them. He said an offer was extended to McConnell’s lawyers to meet with his staff, but it was never accepted.

Berta said he doesn’t believe McConnell quit because of sexual harassment, but because she was reprimanded for taking unauthorized time off. McConnell took two days off in early April 2011 to travel to Baltimore to deal with her ailing father’s health.

The judge sent her a letter criticizing how she handled the situation, and McConnell wrote Berta an apology.

After McConnell quit, Berta’s secretary, Chris Muska, sent her several text messages in which she told McConnell that the judge wanted her to stay on the job.

McConnell declined and appeared to agree with the secretary when Muska asked if she had resigned over the fallout from her Baltimore trip.

“Yes,” McConnell wrote in two texts. “And how I was treated as a result.”

The lawsuit is assigned to county Common Pleas Judge Mark Betleski, who said Friday he will review whether he or any county judge can handle the case. He said he anticipates the county’s judges will end up asking the Ohio Supreme Court to name a visiting judge to oversee the matter.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.