ELYRIA — Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Gerald Innes defended himself in a letter Tuesday against an accusation he threatened the county’s judges by suggesting they “tread lightly” in the ongoing dispute between the commissioners and judges over the location of the county’s Adult Probation Department offices.
Innes wrote he brought up his concerns to county Common Pleas judges Mark Betleski and Christopher Rothgery in separate meetings last week because he felt he had information of which they needed to be aware.
The meetings with the two judges also involved county Prosecutor Dennis Will, who asked the judges to remove Judge James Burge as administrative judge. Will also wanted the judges to prevent Burge from hearing criminal cases because of an incident in which Burge allegedly intimidated Assistant County Prosecutor Jennifer Riedthaler.
The judges refused the request, and Burge has accused Will, Innes and Assistant County Prosecutor George Koury of threatening the judges by saying they would make public a file they’ve been building on him since he took the bench in 2007.
Will has denied anyone in his office threatened the judges and said he is considering asking the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene.
Burge has said he isn’t aware of any incident in which he physically intimidated Riedthaler and that the judges are examining their options in regard to the perceived threats.
Innes wrote that he saw an opportunity to share his concerns with two judges and took it because he believed he had an obligation to do so even though the judges were in the process of getting their own attorney to handle the matter. Will’s office represents both the judges and commissioners in most matters.
“I took this course of action on my own. It absolutely was not done at the direction of Mr. Will with any intent to intimidate or threaten either you, or the other Judges,” Innes wrote. “Rather, it was an attempt to let the Judges know that there may be some factors unknown to them that they and their counsel might want to consider before proceeding.”
Burge and the other judges want to relocate the Probation Department from the old Lorain County Courthouse to the unfinished fifth floor of the Lorain County Justice Center. The county has suggested using a building on Broad Street, which drew concerns from Burge and Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda.
Burge has warned the commissioners that if they don’t approve funds to build out the fifth floor, the judges will issue a court order to fix numerous problems at the old courthouse.
In a May 15 letter to Will, Burge wrote that he didn’t understand why the judges would be warned to “tread lightly” because as far as he knows he is the only judge in the county under investigation.
Will requested the Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation investigate a county judge last June, but he has declined to discuss what the allegations are or which judge is the subject of the criminal probe. Burge has said he believes he is the target of the investigation, which centers at least in part on his finances and involvement in the ownership of a Lorain building where several attorneys have offices.
But Innes wrote that he wasn’t referring to that investigation when he brought up the matter with Betleski and Rothgery. Instead, he said the matter he was talking about was an ongoing investigation into the Probation Department.
That investigation was launched earlier this year after reports of missing items that probation officers had seized and Burge had ordered destroyed became public. The investigation has cleared county Crime Lab Director Emmanuel de Leon, who had been under suspicion in the matter, of wrongdoing, but it opened up a deeper look into the Probation Department.
“It was not an attempt to discourage the court from taking steps that the Judges deem necessary for the operation of the courts; only a suggestion that they might want to pause for a little while, and await the outcome of the investigation to get the lay of the land,” Innes wrote.
County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh said Wednesday that the investigation into the Probation Department is ongoing and he couldn’t discuss further details.