ELYRIA — A special grand jury was empaneled at the Lorain County Justice Center on Friday and county Common Pleas Judge James Burge said he believes it will focus on him.
“I feel comfortable that they’ve assembled and I’m the subject of the discussion,” Burge said.
The judge said he was told a visiting judge from Franklin County was in the Justice Center to convene the special grand jury and that Assistant Ohio Attorney General Matt Donahue also was in the building for the same reason.
According to Ohio Supreme Court records released earlier this week, Dale Crawford, a retired Franklin County judge was named late last year to handle grand jury proceedings in an investigation of a sitting judge in the General Division of the Lorain County Common Pleas Court.
Donahue and two senior prosecutors from county Prosecutor Dennis Will’s office met with county Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi in December to request a visiting judge to oversee the investigation.
“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 requesting the 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.”
The full extent of what criminal wrongdoing is being alleged against the judge under investigation remains unclear.
Will said earlier this week that he asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to look into criminal allegations against a sitting judge last June, but he has declined to say which judge is the target of the investigation and what is being looked at.
Will has said the allegations against the sitting judge were brought to him by another judge, who he also declined to name.
Will said his office isn’t involved in the matter and that he couldn’t comment Friday.
Burge said he concluded he was the subject of the probe after hearing from friends, former staff members and attorneys that a BCI agent was asking questions about his finances and 600 Broadway, a Lorain building where he kept his private law offices before taking the bench in 2007.
Lorain attorney Zachary Simonoff, who began renting space at the building last year, has said he was questioned by a BCI agent about who he pays rent to and whether he has received special treatment from Burge.
Simonoff has denied he got special treatment from the judge.
According to public records, the Broadway building is owned by Whiteacre North Ltd., a company Burge, his wife, Susan Burge, and two other lawyers formed in 1997 to own and operate the building, which they purchased in 1985.
When he took the bench, Burge, his wife and Lorain attorney Michael Tully made a deal to sell the building to attorney Shimane Smith, but that deal fell apart in 2011 and ownership of the building reverted back to Whiteacre North.
The judge transferred his ownership stake in the company to his wife in June 2011 and has said he no longer has a financial tie to the building, where several other lawyers who appear in his courtroom rent office space.
Although Burge continues to be a guarantor on a $365,240 loan on the building issued in 1998, he has said that only means he will have to pay off the money if Whiteacre North defaults on the loan, something he considers unlikely. Will has said the loan guarantee appears to give Burge a financial interest in the building.
Beyond the investigation, Burge and Will are locked in a long-simmering dispute that has erupted in recent weeks over allegations the judge physically intimidated Assistant County Prosecutor Jennifer Riedthaler.
Burge has said he doesn’t believe he ever intimidated Riedthaler, who he has said he treated like a daughter. But he said Will’s efforts to convince his fellow judges to remove him as administrative judge and stop him from hearing criminal cases were backed up by threats from Will and his staff.
The judge has accused Will’s office of threatening to release a file he says they’ve kept on him since 2007 that purportedly contains embarrassing information. Burge said Will told county Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery that if the judges didn’t take action he would release the information.
Will has said he wasn’t threatening the judges but instead seeking their help in dealing with his concerns about Burge. He said his office would have to include the information that’s been gathered about Burge’s behavior as part of a request to the Ohio Supreme Court to bar Burge from being involved in criminal cases.
Will’s office has had mixed success in previous efforts to force Burge off specific cases.