News

Auditor requests more details on court bill

Chagrin Valley Times
December 12, 2019
by Joseph Koziol Jr.

 

Questions are being raised about a $3,763 requested payment to a state representative for his participation in a local continuing education conference for area attorneys hosted by Geauga County Juvenile and Probate Judge Timothy Grendell.

Payment to the law firm of state Rep. William Seitz, R-Cincinnati, is being withheld for insufficient documentation, according to the Geauga County Auditor’s Office. The issue of nonpayment of the court’s bills has been an ongoing dispute between the court and auditor since 2018 with the auditor insisting on supplemental evidence before paying out public funds. The issue has led to a filing in the Ohio Supreme Court by three court vendors seeking payment.

But, the latest billing that the auditor and courts have a disagreement over has also raised red flags for one Munson Township resident who believes the bill is payback for political favors.

“Was he invited to participate and receive payment because he (Rep. Seitz) introduced two pieces of legislation into the last two Ohio budget bills, one in 2017 and one in 2019, that, had they passed, would have directly benefited Judge Tim Grendell?” resident Barbara Partington asked.

Kimberly Laurie, court administrator for probate and juvenile courts, says there is no duplicitous reason for having Rep. Seitz speak at the conference. “This, like so many of this woman’s allegations, is an outright lie, utterly ridiculous, totally baseless and manufactured for apparently political reasons,” Ms. Laurie said referring to Mrs. Partington.

Mrs. Partington, who is “actively campaigning” for Republican Matthew Rambo, who plans to challenge Judge Grendell in the March primary, said her participation in a candidate’s campaign has nothing to do with her questioning this expenditure. She said she was looking at the court’s spending long before she became involved in a candidate’s campaign. She points to her public records requests for the court’s spending on a tent at the Great Geauga County Fair and the souvenirs handed out that were paid for with public funds. She also said she received documentation from the court on its spending for signs that are seen throughout the county for the “Good Deeds” program.

“I’ve been concerned about how much money is being spent by the juvenile court,” Mrs. Partington said. “I believe the court has been spending an unprecedented amount of money.”

The conference in question was held Sept. 13 as part of a continuing education program for attorneys who are or may practice in Geauga County Juvenile or Probate Courts. Titled “Improving Your Juvenile/Probate Court Practice,” the conference featured six speakers on various issues, such as ethics, state legislators’ perspectives on juvenile court operations and individuals with disabilities.

Mr. Seitz spoke for approximately one hour. He is the only one seeking payment, according to county records.

Ms. Laurie explained that two of the speakers work for the court and were compensated by their salaries. Another was a representative of the Ohio Treasurer’s Office, which does not charge to promote the office’s programs, she said. Another was a consultant for the court who chose not to ask for additional compensation since his topic was adjunct to his consulting services for which he is paid by the county. Judge Grendell also spoke and received no further compensation.

Ms. Laurie said the conference allowed 42 attendees to receive continuing education credits and is a practice that is carried out in other counties. Trumbull County judges, she said, have taught the courses for 20 years and Lake County Probate Court also recently conducted a similar course.

Ms. Laurie defended the court’s use of Rep. Seitz. “Rep. Seitz is a well-recognized lawyer with over 40 years in legal practice and 19 years in the Ohio Legislature, who is in great demand for his knowledgeable teaching, at the local, state and national levels. In preparation for this CLE course, he conducted substantial research in order to ensure accuracy of the legal information being taught. Slandering Rep. Seitz for political purposes is shameful,” Ms. Laurie added.

Mrs. Partington said her questions remain whether it should cost $3,763 for an hour-long talk and whether someone, other than Rep. Seitz, could have been used.

She said the legislation proposed by Rep. Seitz in 2017 was intended to expand judicial powers over county parks. Currently, probate judges appoint members to the county park board to oversee its operations. The second piece of proposed legislation in 2019 removed the need for the documentation that the auditor is now seeking for payment to Rep. Seitz.

Although both pieces of legislation failed to be enacted in the final state budget bills, Rep. Seitz has now reintroduced the oversight legislation as a stand-alone bill.

The auditor’s office declined comment on the Rep. Seitz billing, citing the ongoing legal issues with the courts. Charles E. Walder is the current county auditor.

But public records obtained show that payment has been requested by the court since Sept. 25 after submitting an invoice from Dinsmore and Shohl LLP, Rep. Seitz’s law firm. The public records also include a letter from Dinsmore and Shohl which accompanied the invoice, explaining the reason for the fee, a purchase order, a court order and a print-out of the Ohio Supreme Court’s webpage showing the seminar was approved.

On Oct. 1, according to the documents, the auditor’s office responded, asking for a copy of the agenda and the attendee list.

The court replied the same day that no further documentation is necessary and will not be forthcoming. “The Supreme Court’s approval should be sufficient for your office to determine proper public purpose of the expenditure,” the court wrote. “Additionally, the judge has confirmed this expenditure’s proper public purpose via the two court orders also submitted to your office, pursuant to R.C. 319.16. Therefore, the probate/juvenile court will not provide any additional documentation to your office.”

Three days later, the auditor’s office cited an Ohio Attorney General’s opinion, which states that “the county auditor has ‘the discretion to determine what constitutes evidentiary matter that is sufficient to support a requested expenditure’” and again asked for the agenda and attendee list.

Judge Grendell replied in writing that day that an Ohio Attorney General’s opinion states that the auditor must seek a “reasonable request.”

This auditor’s “request is not reasonable,” Judge Grendell stated.

Ms. Laurie points out that the payment will go to Rep. Seitz’s law firm, not Rep. Seitz, himself. “The $3,700 is being paid to the firm, not to Rep. Seitz,” she wrote in an email to the Times.

Mrs. Partington said the idea that the money is going to Rep. Seitz or his law firm is irrelevant. The question remains whether public dollars should be used for what she said she perceives to be a political plum for Mr. Seitz, who has provided legislation to benefit the Geauga court.

Before the questions about the billing were even fully answered, threats were already coming to defend Judge Grendell and Rep. Seitz.

“This letter is to serve notice to you and your paper that the story told to you by the unnamed woman is both demonstratively untrue and defamatory to my client and to State Representative Seitz,” James Grendell, a Cincinnati attorney and son of Judge Grendell, wrote in an email to the Times publisher.

“If your paper repeats this defamation, my client will have no choice but to exercise all of his legal rights under the laws of that (sic) State of Ohio,” James Grendell wrote. “I would assume Representative Seitz would as well. I understand the temptation of publishing juicy political stories, but this one is categorically untrue.”

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