ELYRIA — Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge has accused county Prosecutor Dennis Will of trying to intimidate the county’s judges by threatening to release embarrassing information he has accumulated about Burge over the years.
Will denied Tuesday that he had threatened the judges.
“I never threatened anybody. I went to them seeking assistance,” Will said.
Burge wrote that Will and two of his staff members made the threats during a meeting last week with county Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery. The purpose of the meeting was to ask the county’s General Division judges to remove Burge as administrative judge and then bar him from handling any criminal cases, a request the judges have refused.
“Judge Rothgery, again at your request, further advised the judges that if they did not take this action, you threatened to: 1. open the file you have kept on me, commencing the second week of my first term; and, 2. reveal the information you have accumulated to the media, embarrassing not only me, but the entire General Division as well,” Burge wrote in a letter to Will dated Friday.
Rothgery declined to comment Tuesday, but Burge said the threats could be considered intimidation of a public official, which is a crime under state law, although the judges haven’t decided whether to ask for a special prosecutor to investigate the matter.
“That sets a bad precedent. I’ve never heard of a prosecutor doing something like that in my life,” Burge said.
Will said he has done nothing wrong and that he welcomes any investigation into the escalating dispute between his office and Burge.
He said the point of the conversation with Rothgery was to convey that if something wasn’t done locally, he would have to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene. He held a similar conversation with county Common Pleas Judge Mark Betleski as well, but Betleski declined to get involved and recommended that Will speak to Rothgery.
“I said if I could not find some solution to this, I would have to file an affidavit of prejudice,” Will said. “I felt it was going to be ugly.”
If it comes to the point where he does have to ask the Supreme Court to get involved, Will said he will have to explain all of the problems his staff members have had working in Burge’s courtroom over the years.
The most recent incident involves Assistant County Prosecutor Jennifer Riedthaler, who Will said felt physically threatened by Burge. It’s an issue Will said he takes seriously.
“I have a responsibility to my people to have them work in an environment that is productive and safe,” he said.
Burge denied that he ever threatened Riedthaler, but apologized in a letter he sent to Will last week.
“I was stunned to learn that Attorney Jennifer Riedthaler finds me to be a physically threatening presence,” Burge wrote. “I honestly believed I was treating Attorney Riedthaler like a daughter.”
The judge also said that he once offered Riedthaler a job working as his bailiff and that if he had known he was doing something to upset her, he would have fixed the problem and apologized.
Will and his staff members have previously tried to remove Burge from cases, although those have been limited in scope and not always successful. Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor took Burge off the case of death row inmate Stanley Jalowiec last year, although she declined to remove him from all of the cases being handled by Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo.
O’Connor also took Burge off the three-judge panel that presided over the capital murder trial of Vincent Jackson Jr. earlier this year because the judge had removed himself from all of Cillo’s cases in a January court order. Burge lifted that order last month.
Burge also is the subject of an ongoing confidential inquiry by the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel that involves reviews of the judge’s handling of the controversial Head Start child molestation case and whether he has a financial interest in a Lorain office building.
Before taking the bench in 2007, Burge kept his private law offices at 600 Broadway, a building he once partially owned as a member of Whiteacre North Ltd. A 2007 deal to sell the building to another attorney fell through in 2011, but Burge has said he transferred his ownership stake to his wife that same year.
The judge continues to be a guarantor on a $365,240 loan on the building issued in 1998, although he said Tuesday that only means he’s on the hook to pay off the loan if Whiteacre North defaults, something he doesn’t believe will happen.
Will said the guarantee Burge has on the building is cause for concern.
“Based upon my understanding of that, he would have an interest in the building,” he said.
Prosecutors have raised concerns about whether Burge has a conflict of interest because several attorneys who have offices at 600 Broadway practice law in front of him. Burge and those lawyers have denied there is a conflict.
Whether Burge has given special treatment to those lawyers appears to be part of an ongoing criminal investigation into a sitting General Division judge being conducted by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Burge has said he believes he is the target of that investigation and a BCI agent has questioned an attorney renting space at the building about the judge.
Will has said he requested BCI conduct the investigation last year after another judge came to him with concerns about possible criminal behavior on the part of a sitting judge. Will has declined to say what the allegations were or which judges were involved.