ELYRIA — A Lorain County Common Pleas General Division judge is the subject of a criminal investigation. Judge James Burge said Monday he believes he is that judge.
The investigation is being conducted by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation at the request of county Prosecutor Dennis Will, who declined to provide details of the probe, which has been ongoing for nearly a year.
“I had another judge come to me with allegations of wrongdoing by a sitting judge, and I forwarded it to BCI to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Will said.
Will declined to name either the judge who made the complaint or the judge who is being investigated.
Burge said he pieced together that he is the target of the BCI investigation based on attorneys, former staff members and friends being interviewed by someone from the state agency.
Burge said he didn’t know what complaint another judge could have against him. He doesn’t believe he has committed any crimes.
Jill Del Greco, a spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who oversees BCI, said she could neither confirm nor deny that Burge is under investigation.
But in response to a public records request from The Chronicle-Telegram seeking a request from Will’s office for BCI’s assistance in an investigation of Burge, DeWine’s office provided a redacted copy of a letter from Will dated June 4, 2013.
Although the identity of the target and nature of the investigation were blacked out, Will wrote he wanted BCI and DeWine’s staff to handle the matter.
“I believe it would create an actual and potential conflict for my Office to investigate these allegations,” Will wrote.
By December, Ohio Assistant Attorney General Matt Donahue and two senior prosecutors from Will’s office sought a meeting with Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi, who at the time was presiding over the county’s grand jury.
“They advised me that there was now an investigation going on of one of the other general division common pleas judges on our bench. They did not disclose any information or even the name of the judge,” Miraldi wrote in a Dec. 13 email to the Ohio Supreme Court requesting a visiting judge. “I firmly believe that all of the six judges would feel a heavy conflict of interest to be involved in an investigation of another colleague on the bench here.”
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor appointed Dale Crawford, a retired Franklin County judge, to preside over grand jury proceedings in the matter, according to documents provided by the state’s high court. To date, no county judge has been charged with a crime, according to court records.
Burge said he can’t speak to the full scope of the investigation, but he believes it centers at least in part on his finances and whether he has an ownership interest in 600 Broadway, a Lorain office building where the judge’s private law offices were until he took the bench in 2007.
Attorney Zachary Simonoff, who rents space in the building, said he was interviewed by a BCI agent earlier this year.
“A person from BCI asked me whether I’ve received any favorable treatment since I’ve been in this building,” Simonoff said.
He said he hasn’t been assigned any court-appointed work by Burge and didn’t think he’d been given special treatment by the judge.
Two other attorneys who rent space at the building, Anthony Baker and J. Anthony Rich, said they have not been contacted by BCI, although they were aware the agent visited the building.
Burge said he hasn’t been interviewed by BCI.
Simonoff also said he was asked who he paid rent to and he replied that he wrote checks to Whiteacre North Ltd., a company owned by Lorain attorney Michael Tully and Burge’s wife, Susan Burge, who also is a lawyer.
According to documents provided to The Chronicle by Burge earlier this year, the Burges, Tully and attorney Sam Bradley bought the building in 1985 and formed Whiteacre North in 1997 to own and operate the property.
When Bradley left Whiteacre North in 2001, he transferred his interest to Tully, while the Burges each continued to own 25 percent of the company. The building was sold to attorney Shimane Smith just days after Burge became a judge, but that deal fell apart in February 2011 and ownership of the property reverted back to the Burges and Tully.
Burge transferred his ownership in the company to his wife for $1 on June 7, 2011, a move he has said divested him of any financial interest in the building. He has said he notified Will of the steps he’d taken to avoid a conflict, but Will has said he never saw the letter Burge wrote.
Prosecutors haven’t bought the judge’s explanation and raised the issue of whether Burge had a conflict of interest in the capital murder trial of Vincent Jackson Jr. because Jackson was represented by Rich.
Although Burge was selected to serve on the three-judge panel that heard the Jackson case, he was ordered off the case by O’Connor because he had removed himself from any case being handled by Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo in January. Burge lifted that order in April.
O’Connor didn’t address the issue of whether Burge had a conflict because Rich rented office space at the Broadway building.
The revelations about the investigation come a week after Will sought to convince Burge’s fellow judges to oust him as administrative judge and bar him from hearing all criminal cases.
County Common Pleas Judge Mark Betleski said Will made the request to him during a meeting last week.
Betleski said Will told him the reason was an issue that Assistant County Prosecutor Jennifer Riedthaler had with Burge, although Betleski declined to discuss what the specific allegation was.
“I advised him I would not be doing anything about the issue. I recommended they talk to (Judge Christopher) Rothgery,” Betleski said. “It seemed to me they were looking for something to be done by all the judges, and I advised them that he would have more influence with them than I had.”
Rothgery could not be reached for comment Monday night, but Miraldi said the General Division judges met last week and unanimously voted to keep Burge as administrative judge.
“None of us have lost confidence in Judge Burge as administrative judge,” Miraldi said.
Will declined to discuss what had happened between Burge and Riedthaler that prompted him to ask the other judges to move against Burge, although he didn’t rule out taking further action in the matter.
“I’ll file what I think I need to file,” he said.
Burge said he doesn’t believe he ever raised his voice to Reidthaler, but that she is no longer assigned to work as the prosecutor in his courtroom.
“She said that I was an intimidating presence, according to what I was told, so they took her out of my room,” the judge said.
Burge said he had been upset with Riedthaler recently because of an issue that came up during a sentencing hearing in which she had reached a deal to resolve a case without input from police, who became upset about the sentence he imposed.
He said it was a pattern that has caused problems, including last week when he kept his promise to sentence Jeremy Roldan to probation in a string of 10 burglaries and a drug case despite complaints from police.
Burge has said Reidthaler agreed to defer to him on sentencing and he gave his word to Roldan about what the sentence would be. Had he known additional information he later learned from Lorain police about that case, Burge said he never would have promised Roldan probation.
Will has disputed that account, saying that his office wouldn’t have agreed to probation in the case or to remain silent.
Burge and prosecutors have clashed for years on a variety of issues, including over an ongoing inquiry of the judge by the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
The judge has suggested that Will’s office is responsible for the confidential probe, which Burge has acknowledged includes the Broadway building and his handling of the controversial Head Start child molestation case in which he acquitted and freed Nancy Smith and Joseph Allen on a technicality.
Although Burge was later overturned on appeal and removed himself from the case, Smith cut a deal with prosecutors that spared her a return trip to prison. The terms of the agreement Allen reached with prosecutors weren’t as favorable and he was ordered back to prison.
A Disciplinary Counsel lawyer also obtained the audio recordings of 10 days worth of proceedings in Burge’s courtroom, although the purpose of gathering those recordings has never been clear.
In court filings made last year as part of an unsuccessful effort to force Burge off of all of his cases, Cillo denied that he or anyone else in Will’s office was responsible for the Disciplinary Counsel inquiry.