ELYRIA — Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge has corrected his annual financial disclosure statements, which he acknowledged last week contained numerous errors.
In documents mailed Monday to the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, Burge acknowledged 43 separate mistakes he said he made in filling out the forms for the years 2007 through 2013.
Burge said he went back through his disclosure statements after a review by The Chronicle-Telegram showed there was inaccurate information about his family’s connections to Whiteacre North Ltd., which owns a Lorain office building at 600 Broadway.
The judge called the incorrect information he filed mistakes.
“I had the same problem that I had putting together my children’s Christmas toys; I don’t read directions well,” Burge said.
Failure to properly fill out the financial disclosure statements, which are designed to reveal possible conflicts of interest, can open up a judge to possible misdemeanor criminal charges and ethics violations.
In the documents mailed Monday, Burge wrote that he shouldn’t have included Whiteacre North when he filed disclosure statements for 2007, 2008 and 2009 because the company had been sold to attorney Shimane Smith and his wife, Azuree, in 2007. Burge also wrote that he should have listed the company in 2011 and 2012 because the Smiths defaulted on the purchase in February 2011 and control reverted back to Burge and his business partners, attorneys Michael Tully and Susan Burge, who is the judge’s wife.
Burge sold his interest in Whiteacre North to Susan Burge in June 2011 for $1, according to documents provided by the judge earlier this year.
Under the disclosure rules, judges are required to list the companies that members of their household own and operate. Burge routinely listed his wife’s private law practice on the forms and has said he should have done the same with Whiteacre North while his wife had control of the company.
Burge listed Whiteacre North on his disclosure form for 2013 when he submitted it earlier this year.
He also acknowledged that he didn’t list the Smiths as debtors in 2008, something he should have done.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will’s office has raised the issue of whether Burge has a conflict of interest based on his connection to Whiteacre North because several defense attorneys who practice in front of him have offices at 600 Broadway. Burge also is a guarantor on a $365,240 loan on the building from 1998.
Burge has previously insisted that he doesn’t have a conflict and the attorneys who have offices there have said they’ve received no special treatment from the judge.
But Burge’s lawyer did acknowledge last year in a letter to the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel that the judge should have stepped back from cases involving those attorneys from February 2011 through June 2011. The lawyer, Brian Spiess, wrote that the judge hadn’t realized that control of Whiteacre North automatically reverted to the former owners’ control once the Smiths defaulted.
The judge also wrote in the documents mailed Monday that he had made numerous other mistakes while completing the forms over the years, including not listing his income as a judge for every year he’s been in office.
He also wrote he incorrectly continued to include his private law practice in filings for 2007 and 2008 even though he closed down the office when he became a judge.
Additionally, Burge added numerous other items for various years, including stock dividends, interest income and some creditors, including banks and credit cards, he hadn’t listed on his original filings.
Although he couldn’t speak specifically about Burge’s forms, Rich Dove, secretary for the Supreme Court’s grievance board, has said there is no formal mechanism in place to amend the disclosure statements, although judges sometimes do.
Dove has said that even when a judge or lawyer files documents to amend the forms, doing so doesn’t remove the possibility of criminal or ethical sanctions.
Burge has said that he doesn’t believe he committed a crime because he would have had to “knowingly” file false statements to be convicted and he had no reason to deliberately file incorrect information.
The judge is the target of an ongoing criminal investigation by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. That probe appears to focus, at least in part, on Burge’s finances, including his connection to Whiteacre North.