Accusations of an uncooperative relationship between the Geauga County Probate and Juvenile Court and Geauga County Auditor continued last week along with promises of more legal action in the future.
Two weeks ago, the Ohio Court of Claims ruled on a filing by Court Administrator Kimberly Laurie that sought records from the auditor’s office. But the court found that probate, juvenile and other courts cannot file such requests and dismissed the case.
“The special master found there was no express authority for the court to sue under the Public Records Act; instead, a public records action may only be brought by ‘a person’ allegedly aggrieved by the failure of an office to comply,” the court stated. Citing a case involving Cleveland Municipal Court and Cleveland City Council, Judge Patrick M. McGrath wrote: “Absent express statutory authority, a court can neither sue nor be sued in its own right.”
Ms. Laurie said she is undeterred in getting the cooperation the courts seeks and can, if she chooses to, refile.
“The ruling only determined that the court could not file a complaint in the Court of Claims,” she said. “It did not rule on the substance of the complaint itself, and was ‘without prejudice,’ meaning that I can file again as an individual if I choose to. It also leaves open the option for me to instead file a mandamus action in the Supreme Court if I choose to.”
The records sought were for two checks issued for court vendors.
In an April 3 letter from the court to the auditor, Ms. Laurie stated the need to see the checks. “Given that your office printed checks for Round 1 Ministry and Robert Williams last fall but withheld them from the vendors while you made ridiculous allegations which the state auditor, on March 14, 2019, deemed to be unfounded; and given that those checks still have not been mailed despite showing all along in New World as having been ‘paid’, the ‘paid’ status in New World is meaningless to the court; the court is seeking confirmation from your office whether new checks printed on March 29, 2019 (after your office voided the original checks), were, in fact, mailed to the court’s vendors.”
Ms. Laurie wrote in an attachment to the Court of Claims filing that the request should not have taken as long as it did. “My request to see two checks was not a request to view a voluminous amount of documents which would have required advanced preparation,” she wrote. “These two checks in particular are also very well known, as they have been a point of contention between the county auditor and the court since the original checks were printed on November 6, 2018, and therefore there is no doubt that they would have been easily found by the auditor’s staff.”
The request for information also led to confrontations and threats to call the police, although accounts vary of what occurred.
Ms. Laurie wrote to the court that she visited the auditor’s office on April 3 after not receiving a response from the auditor’s office for the records. She wrote that auditor’s staff informed them they needed to speak to Kate Jacob, chief compliance officer,” who was in a meeting. Ms. Laurie said an appointment was made for about an hour later to see Ms. Jacob.
But Ms. Jacob was unavailable when they returned for the appointment, Ms. Laurie wrote, and informed the office that the request was a formal one under the Ohio Public Records Law.
“She asked us to wait a moment, then returned with Auditor (Charles) Walder, who immediately began yelling at us, refused to allow us to inspect the requested documents, and required that we make the records request in writing,” Ms. Laurie wrote.
Ms. Laurie informed Mr. Walder that while an office is allowed to ask for a request in writing, Ohio law also requires a public office to inform those seeking requests that a written request is not mandatory.
She wrote that she would return later that afternoon to the auditor’s office with a written request, and again was stonewalled. She said she was told that employees were unavailable, including Mr. Walder.
“I asked to speak with Auditor Walder and was told that he said he already had dealt with me that morning, the documents ‘weren’t ready,’ that he will not be speaking with me again, and that he is calling the Geauga County sheriff to have me removed from his office.”
The court’s fiscal compliance officer, Seth A. Miller, provided a similar account, writing that Mr. Walder “came out and was very combative as soon as he came out from the back of the office.”
“Auditor Walder became unhinged and continued to refuse to allow us to see the checks,” Mr. Miller wrote. “He then stated that Kim, Tara and myself were now causing a disruption to him and his staff and as he stormed off, he instructed his staff to contact the sheriff’s office to remove us from the office.”
Ms. Jacob said much of the confrontations coincided with an Ohio Attorney General’s Opinion that had been sought by the auditor. The opinion noted that auditor, as a co-equal branch, has authority under Ohio law to seek evidentiary materials along with requests for payment from the court.
Ms. Jacob said within a week of the opinion, Ms. Laurie filed her claim with the Ohio Court of Claims and an attorney filed a case in Ohio Supreme Court, seeking an order for payment of three court vendors.
“Multiple times that week after the AG opinion, juvenile court employees caused disruptive scenes in our fiscal department and refused to leave when repeatedly asked,” Ms. Jacob said. “At one point, the juvenile court administrator brought a sheriff’s deputy working court security out of the juvenile court and into our fiscal department; demanding to see a specific employee and refusing to leave despite being told that employee was unavailable. It should go without saying, but our employees deserve a professional, safe work environment. That is particularly important considering the detail-oriented financial responsibilities of the fiscal department.”
She said Mr. Walder did not, as described, become “unhinged.”
“Mr. Walder most certainly did not become unhinged or combative,” she wrote. “It is disappointing that juvenile court employees intentionally disrupt and harass another public office, and nonsensical that they then claim to be victims. It is not surprising considering the source.”
Madeline VanScoyoc, a deputy auditor, also provided an account of the confrontation.
While she did not speak to them personally, she wrote that she overhead the court employees initially request an appointment with Ms. Jacob and return about an hour later, expecting to speak to Ms. Jacob.
“At 10:30 a.m., both Kim and Seth along with another person, who I do not know, arrived back at the office demanding to see Kate. They were told by Heather and Pam McMahan that she was not available and that they could email her to set up an appointment or speak further. They continued to stay in the office and ask to speak to Kate several times. Auditor Walder asked them to leave or that he would call the sheriff.”
Ms. VanScoyoc wrote that Ms. Laurie returned again that afternoon with a deputy to ask to speak to Ms. Jacob or Mr. Walder and was told again neither was available and “if they continued to disrupt the office that Auditor Walder would contact the sheriff.”