ELYRIA — Common Pleas Judge James Burge was convicted Wednesday on counts of falsification and tampering with records, charges that will draw to a close his tumultuous eight-year tenure on the bench and 40 years as an attorney.
The five-man, seven-woman jury took less than two hours to find him guilty of the three felonies and three misdemeanors. Burge, who largely defended himself, looked stunned by the decision.
Afterward, he said he doesn’t plan to appeal even though he continues to maintain the case was politically motivated. And, while he said he disagrees with the verdict, he said he received a fair trial and the jury did its job.
“I think I may just be comfortable with the verdict,” Burge said. “I’ve put people through an awful lot, and it’s time to end it.”
He will be sentenced May 14. He could face a maximum of 36 months in prison for each of the third-degree felony charges.
After the verdict, Special Prosecutor Matt Donahue declined to comment, referring all inquiries about the outcome of the case to the public relations arm of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case.
“The Ohio Attorney General’s Office is pleased with this verdict, which shows the importance of public officials being accountable to the voters who elect them,” wrote Dan Tierney, an Attorney General’s Office spokesman, in an email.
Tierney also labeled Burge’s contention of political motivation “not true and baseless.’’
Ohio Supreme Court rules for judicial officeholders call for judges with felony criminal convictions to be immediately suspended without pay and barred from practicing law. Such a conviction is expected to lead to an order removing Burge from the bench.
Had he only been convicted of the misdemeanor charges, he would have been permitted to return to the bench, according to Ohio Supreme Court rules.
Bret Crow, public information director for the Supreme Court of Ohio, said the governor fills all judicial vacancies in Ohio.
Burge’s post-verdict demeanor was in stark contrast to the confidence he exhibited during his closing statements just hours before.
Burge told jurors he wanted to speak to them from the heart, and that they would have to consider whether he was an honest man or a criminal.
The charges Burge was convicted of hinged on whether he had an ownership interest in Whiteacre North LLC, which owns 600 Broadway in Lorain, and whether he committed a crime when he failed to list the company, property or his wife’s interest in both on financial disclosure forms in years past.
The case was not as simple as Donahue wanted people to think, Burge told jurors. Eight disclosure forms have been filed while Burge served as a judge, but the state only focused on technicalities three of those forms contained, he said.
Burge said he had nothing to gain when he didn’t list Lorain National Bank in 2010, or Whiteacre North on forms from 2011 to 2013, which he said was reflected in the dismissal of six charges over the course of the five-day trial that dealt with soliciting improper compensation and having an unlawful interest in a public contract.
Visiting Judge Dale Crawford tossed those charges, saying the state failed to prove Burge committed those crimes.
Burge also told jurors his past speaks for itself: The judge and former defense attorney said he has never faced disciplinary action for ethics violations and had never committed a crime during his 40-year career.
“They want you to believe that in my 60s I have come out of the closet as not only greedy but a criminal,” Burge said.
Burge said he’s stood for the downtrodden during his career, not for big shots in the system, and it’s his belief the prosecutor’s office goes after those like him who don’t toe the line.
“If I am here because of what I have done as a judge, I welcome this,” Burge said. “If I am here because of the decisions I have made rather than the technical mistakes that have been outlined to you by Attorney Donahue, I welcome this penance.”
County Prosecutor Dennis Will, who’s had a long-standing feud with Burge, declined to comment on those statements following the verdict when reached by phone.
During his own closing statements, Donahue said Burge’s remarks were nothing more than the rhetoric of a veteran politician.
“The defendant is a politician, and he’s campaigning before you here today,” Donahue said.
Burge wasn’t charged with being a nice or bad guy, likeable or unlikeable, Donahue said, he was charged with falsification and tampering with records by trying to conceal his interests in Whiteacre North on financial disclosure forms.
Donahue criticized Burge for including other items, like gift cards from JC Penney, on his forms while omitting a $365,000 piece of real estate he and his wife were connected to that also happened to be a building where attorneys who practiced in Burge’s court rented office space.
And Donahue questioned how Burge could testify that he didn’t realize Whiteacre North was a business.
“A judge and a lawyer of 40 years actually said under oath he doesn’t think owning rental properties was a business,” Donahue said. “That is beyond verbal explanation.”
Burge’s supporters looked on as the jury handed down its verdict and Crawford read six separate guilty charges.
Attorney JD Tomlinson, who described Burge as a mentor, sat through the trial from jury selection to the verdict. Tomlinson said he was “absolutely stunned” with the decision, and he completely disagrees with the outcome.
“I know what kind of a man he is, and I know he is innocent,” Tomlinson said.