ELYRIA — Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge blasted county Prosecutor Dennis Will on Wednesday in his response to Will’s broad effort to have the judge removed from every case his office is handling in Burge’s courtroom.
Burge vehemently denied dozens of allegations of misconduct ranging from sexually harassing and intimidating prosecutors to making racist comments and basing his decisions on the race of criminal defendants.
Burge accused Will of spending the past 7½ years building a file of out-of-context comments he’s made and other behavior Will deemed inappropriate. Similar files now are being kept on other judges, Burge wrote, although Will has denied that allegation.
Will said Wednesday that he had not read Burge’s filing, but that his staff is reviewing it and will file a response if they deem it appropriate.
Burge questioned the motivations of the assistant county prosecutors who supplied many of the allegations contained in the affidavit of disqualification Will filed with the Ohio Supreme Court last month.
“I have profound reservations with regard to the candor of the remarks attributed to his assistant prosecutors,” the judge wrote. “I understand the need to earn a living, which necessarily implies loyalty to an employer.”
If the allegations against him are true, Burge wrote, then Will allowed his improper behavior to go unchecked for years without taking any action to stop it.
“It is difficult to accept that, if Prosecutor Will had found the allegations against me by his female assistant prosecutors to have the slightest credibility, he would not have taken at least some action to protect them,” Burge wrote.
Will said this isn’t the first time Burge has accused him of wrongdoing. “I’ve had these baseless accusations made against me before,” he said.
Burge’s response mentions some of those previous clashes between he and Will, including in 2001 when he accused Will, then an Elyria police officer, of withholding a crucial piece of evidence in a criminal trial.
In 2004, when Will was running for prosecutor, Burge questioned the large volume of overtime Will had worked while employed as an assistant county prosecutor and a police captain. Still a defense attorney at the time, Burge wrote letters to the editor on the subject.
When he won election in 2006, Burge wrote he went to see Will and offered to work with him despite their “different views of criminal procedure.” The response of Will and his chief of staff, George Koury, was “blank stares and little comment,” the judge wrote.
Rather than working together, Burge wrote, Will has gathered information about him and used it to seek to have him barred from cases. It also has resulted in roughly two dozen grievances being filed against him with the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the judge wrote.
Burge also is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation that deals, at least in part, with his finances. That investigation was turned over to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation by Will last year, and a special grand jury is meeting to consider evidence in the case.
Will went so far, Burge wrote, as to require the assistant prosecutors assigned to his courtroom to gather evidence to use against him. But the judge wrote he holds no animosity against those who did so.
When he and the other judges learned of the efforts to use their comments, both on and off the record, against them, five of the six General Division judges halted recording what was happening in their courtrooms, Burge wrote. Those judges now rely fully on the official transcripts of proceedings prepared by their court reporters.
In addition to Will’s rancor toward him, Burge wrote that Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo, who runs the Criminal Division in Will’s office, likewise holds a grudge against him.
In January, Burge voluntarily removed himself from all of Cillo’s cases. Although he didn’t feel he was biased against Cillo, Burge wrote that he felt it would be best not to have anything to do with Cillo because Cillo was convinced he was prejudiced against him.
Burge wrote he lifted that order after Cillo proved he couldn’t work with the county’s other judges either.
He pointed to a sentencing hearing for convicted killer Vincent Jackson Jr. earlier this year in which Cillo told a three-judge panel that the decision to spare Jackson a death sentence would make Lady Justice “sick to her stomach.” Cillo also said that the justice system had failed the victim’s family in the Jackson case.
Cillo’s comments drew a rebuke from county Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi at the time.
Burge wrote that despite their descriptions of him intimidating and harassing female prosecutors working in his courtroom, he felt he has enjoyed good relationships with the women.
For instance, Burge wrote that for years Assistant County Prosecutor Sherry Glass confided in him not only problems in her home life, but also issues that came up within Will’s office.
Burge wrote that Glass “expressed her dissatisfaction” with Cillo and Assistant County Prosecutor Laura Dezort, another supervising prosecutor. Glass’ secretary and others who worked for Will, Burge wrote, referred to Cillo and Dezort as “the one-file wonders” for assigning themselves to work only a few high-profile cases.
Although Will wrote that Glass wanted out of Burge’s courtroom because of the judge’s behavior, Burge wrote that he was never told that and Glass continued to handle cases in front of him once she was promoted to supervisor. She also supervised the prosecutors who would come after her.
Burge wrote that Glass told him that one of the prosecutors later assigned to him, Chris Pierre, was removed from his courtroom because some in Will’s office felt “we got along too well.”
The judge didn’t deny making comments about some of the women he dealt with, but he insisted that the comments were meant as compliments and weren’t designed to be sexually suggestive.
For instance, he wrote that when he referred to Glass and other female prosecutors as “blond bombshells” he was referring to their strong legal capabilities as well as the color of their hair.
Burge also wrote that given the improper behavior he is alleged to have demonstrated toward the women of Will’s staff, it was surprising that several of them had expressed interest or actively pursued employment with him as a bailiff, including paralegal Amanda Thomas.
“While it is quite difficult for me to prove that I did not engage in the behavior toward his female assistant prosecutors that Attorney Will alleges in his affidavit, Amanda Thomas’ very considered decision to apply for a position in my employ, after her extensive experience with me, is entirely inconsistent with Prosecutor Will’s claim that I am a judge who engages in the intimidation and sexual harassment of the prosecutor’s female employees,” Burge wrote.
Race and religion
Burge also didn’t deny that he had used strong and sometimes racially-charged language both in court and in private conversations.
But the judge wrote that it was mostly used in an effort to convey a point to a criminal defendant or someone else.
“If I refer to a defendant as a ‘homeboy,’ a ‘gangster,’ a ‘cracker’ or a ‘titare’ (Spanish: ‘street bum’), I am describing a lifestyle, not ethnicity,” Burge wrote. “It is not regarded by the defendant as an ethnic slur. If it were, I would not use it.”
Burge also wrote that if he inquired whether a black drug dealer was caught selling drugs to a white person, he used that to demonstrate that the defendant was “too naïve to live a life of crime.” If the same defendant was selling drugs to a black person, the judge wrote he thought that demonstrated “a willingness to poison the community in which he lives.”
The point, he wrote, was not to increase the severity of the sentence based on race.
Burge wrote that he found it ironic to be accused of racism since his wife, Susan Burge, is Hispanic, which makes him the only non-minority in his household. He also wrote that he “gifted” his law practice to a black lawyer when he became a judge.
Burge also wrote that while he had used racially-charged language when discussing the 2008 Democratic primary in which he supported President Barack Obama, it was in what he thought was a private conversation with Joe Tackett, a lawyer who later became his bailiff.
In that conversation, Burge wrote he used terms such “Beulah” and “Aunt Jemima” to demonstrate a point he was making about race and politics. The comments, he wrote, weren’t directed at Tackett’s wife, who is black and Irish, or Magistrate Charlita Anderson-White, who is black and overheard some of the discussion.
Burge denied Tackett’s claims that he had made disparaging comments about Christians and wanted to issue a court order requiring Bibles to be burned. Burge wrote that he and Tackett often discussed religion while talking about Tackett’s marital woes.
“I did not tell Joe Tackett that I hate Christians or that Catholics are cannibals. I am a Christian and a Catholic, but I am not a cannibal,” Burge wrote. “The reference to cannibalism was Mr. Tackett’s criticism of the Catholic Faith, due to the consumption of the host and wine (‘body and blood’) during Holy Communion.”
Burge also denied telling Tackett, who now is an assistant county prosecutor, he had the power to cure sickness.
Will has said the reason he finally asked the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene was an encounter Burge had with Assistant County Prosecutor Jennifer Riedthaler on May 7.
Will has accused Burge of entering the courtroom that morning and using foul language to tell Riedthaler and an Elyria police detective that he was having a bad day. Burge allegedly slammed his hands down on the table and leaned over Riedthaler when she asked what was wrong.
“You will know in about two minutes,” the judge allegedly said. “I don’t want to yell at you in front of everyone.”
Burge then allegedly paced behind Riedthaler, intimidating her, but female defense attorneys and a county sheriff’s deputy who were present in the courtroom on that day have written affidavits saying they didn’t see the judge engage in any threatening behavior.
Burge denied intimidating Riedthaler and wrote that he later apologized to her for being upset about a court filing and told her he wasn’t angry with her.
The judge wrote that he has been told that while Riedthaler wasn’t unhappy working in his courtroom, she didn’t like the “aggressive debriefing” she had to endure from Cillo whenever she returned from his courtroom.
“Hence, the first female, physically intimidated by me in my 67 years, was invented,” Burge wrote. “I have never threatened Ms. Riedthaler or any other attorney.”
Burge also wrote that following the incident, Will began dispatching male prosecutors to accompany Glass, who took over for Riedthaler in his courtroom, as “bodyguards.”
The presence of the “bodyguards” was designed to humiliate him, as was Riedthaler’s decision to begin carrying a gun to work, Burge wrote.
Also following the May 7 incident, Will asked Burge’s fellow judges to remove him as administrative judge and to prevent him from hearing criminal cases. Burge wrote that Will warned the other judges that if they didn’t take action, he would make public the information he had gathered about him and embarrass all of the judges.
Will has denied threatening the judges and said he was only seeking their help to avoid involving the Supreme Court. The judges voted unanimously to keep Burge as administrative judge.
Burge has been temporarily removed from all cases on his docket involving Will’s office. Those cases are now being handled by Visiting Judge Dale Crawford.