► Akron Beacon Journal – 05/10/01: Billing storm embroils judges Print E-mail

Akron Beacon Journal – 05/10/01: Billing storm embroils judges

 
Theft-in-office charges filed against 9, including 2 from Medina County
By Dennis J. Willard and Doug Oplinger
 
COLUMBUS: On March 8, 2000, retired Medina County Judge Judith Cross spent the morning working as a visiting judge in Lorain County and then traveled to perform the same work that afternoon in neighboring Huron County.
 
When it came time to be paid for her work, she submitted a bill for two days’ pay - $402 for Lorain and $402 for Huron – to the Ohio Supreme Court, which handles assignments for visiting judges.
 
That’s the only day she recalls ever billing for two day’s work on one day, but she is not along in the practice.
 
Today, a probable cause hearing is scheduled in Franklin County Municipal Judge Bruce Jenkin’s courtroom to review more than 50 felony charges of theft-in-office filed against nine visiting judges, including Medina County retired judge, Phillip Baird.
 
The charges were brought by David Palmer, executive director for the Committee to Expose Dishonest and Incompetent Attorneys and Judges.
 
“I’m doing it for one reason. To expose those who think they have the God-given right to help themselves to taxpayers’ money,” Palmer said. “It’s such hypocrisy to have these people sitting there as penny-ante crooks judging others.”
 
Palmer said he went to Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moyer in 1997 with examples of double billing and was ignored. Moyer assigns visiting judges.
 
He also asked state Auditor Jim Petro in 1998 to examine the pattern of double billing and was told it was legal.
 
So he has started to file felony charges himself.
 
His actions yesterday prompted reactions from Cross and state officials.
 
Supreme Court pays bill
 
Cross said she wondered whether billing for two counties on the same day was appropriate, but the Supreme Court paid the bills. She said she called the court yesterday after being interviewed by the Akron Beacon Journal, was told it was wrong and now is reimbursing the state.
 
“I don’t always turn in for a case if it’s only a little bit of work, or just a phone call,” she said.
 
She remembers clearly the March 8, date.
 
“I was working in Lorain County. I finished in the morning and went to Huron County in the afternoon,” Cross said. “I remember wondering about it. It was two different assignments.”
 
She said visiting judges are paid for working any part of a day.
 
Baird, also of Medina, was paid $2,010 from Feb. 28 through March 3, 2000, for sitting as a visiting judge in Stark County. During those same five days, Baird billed the Supreme Court for an additional $2,010 as a visiting judge in Summit County.
 
At least eight times in 2000, Baird was paid two full days’ wages for working in two different counties on the same day. He could not be reached for comment.
 
Michael Grodhaus, Petro’s chief legal counsel, said his office will be talking to the Supreme Court about its practices.
 
Grodhaus said he sent a letter to the court in1998 after being contacted by palmer and was told the practice was discontinued.
 
He said there is nothing in Ohio law preventing judges being paid for sitting as a visiting judge in two counties in one day, but the state auditor’s office believes a judge should receive one hour’s pay for one hour’s work.
 
Chief Justice Moyer was at a conference and unavailable for comment.
 
Not illegal, but ‘wrong’
 
Douglas Stephens, the Supreme Court’s assistant director of judicial and court services, said the practice of billing twice for the same day is not illegal, but it’s wrong.
 
“It’s wrong. The chief [Chief Justice Moyer] will publicly say that it is wrong. He will stand by his previous statement (of 1998),” Stephens said. “Even without Palmer’s involvement, we have been working feverishly to improve our record keeping to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
 
Visiting judges can bill for partial days for more than one county, but not for more than one day, Stephens said.
 
He said judges “were informed how to bill” following the 1998 issue when Petro’s office raised questions, but Cross became a visiting judge since then.
 
“We’re very concerned and watching (the probable cause hearing) very closely. The judges involved provide a great service,” Stephens said.
 
He said that Stephen Yarbrough, a retired visiting judge from Lucas County, also has reimbursed the state.
 
Yarbrough repaid the state for six days in which he double-billed, but Palmer said he found 12 additional days in which Yarbrough was paid twice for work in two counties on the same day.
 
Palmer filed those charges against Yarbrough yesterday and he is also asking the court to look into an arrangement between Yarbrough and James Seney, chairman of the Ohio Rail Development Commission.
 
Yarbrough was routinely reimbursed $55 to $60 a night for lodging as a visiting judge in Franklin County. He said he was paying Seney to stay at an apartment in Columbus.
 
Seney would not comment, but he did not list any income from Yarbrough on financial disclosure forms he is required to file annually with the state.
 
Palmer has asked the Ohio Ethics Commission to investigate the rental arrangement between Seney and Yarbrough.
 
But repaying the state isn’t good enough, Palmer said.
 
“Repaying doesn’t get you out of a felony. That’s like saying, “Oh, I’m sorry I robbed the bank, ‘If that works for judges, then we’re opening the door for everyone to use that excuse,” he said. “The Supreme Court has no authority to give you absolution for these felonies.”
 
Palmer also filed a charge against Cross that indicates she was paid June 28 for working simultaneously in Cuyahoga and Ashland counties, but she said he is mistaken.
 
He said he was using records from the Supreme Court and provided documents to the Beacon Journal that indicated Cross was paid $803.89 for working in two counties on that date.
 
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