Grendell Threatens Chardon Police Lt., Witnesses Say
Geauga County Juvenile and Probate Court Judge Tim Grendell threatened a police officer for doing his job, witnesses said.
The judge, appearing on Chardon Square Thursday morning sporting his black judicial robe, was overheard dressing down Chardon Police Lt. Troy Duncan over a dispute that began hours earlier that morning.
Two of Grendell’s employees — Court Administrator Kim Laurie and Fiscal Compliance Officer Seth Miller — were asked to leave the offices of county Auditor Chuck Walder or be charged with criminal trespass.
The incident reportedly began when Laurie and Miller entered the auditor’s fiscal office around 8:50 a.m. to sign for checks intended for court vendors.
The two departments have sustained a long-simmering dispute over the court’s attempts to issue payments to vendors without providing the auditor’s office sufficient evidence to support those payments, which Ohio law requires. Grendell has attempted — unsuccessfully thus far — to have the law changed.
In a letter to Grendell that afternoon, Walder said Laurie and Miller asked repeatedly to speak with Walder, Deputy Auditor Ron Leyde or Chief Officer of Compliance and Administration Kate Jacob. When told the three were unavailable — they were in a meeting with state auditors — Walder said the pair became disruptive.
Miller was “overly assertive toward my employee,” becoming increasingly belligerent and harassing, then grabbed a stack of purchase orders, vouchers and warrants off the countertop and threatened to withhold them from the auditor’s office, Walder wrote. Miller and Laurie finally left with the auditor’s documents around 9 a.m.
“These financial records are under my statutory control,” Walder told Grendell.
Jacob, who emerged from the meeting with state auditors after the pair had left with the documents, decided to involve law enforcement when she learned Miller took the paperwork without authority or permission, as well as the checks.
That paperwork, she said, is not allowed to leave the auditor’s office.
“(Walder) is personally liable for all of that,” said Jacob. “Those are the hard copies, the only copies.”
Auditor’s office staff consulted with an assistant county prosecutor and eventually decided that, while Miller had joked about whether or not he would return the documents, taking them constituted theft.
“It is the law,” Jacob said. “We have no option but to follow it.”
Around 9:30 a.m., Jacob called Geauga County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tom Rowan, who called Chardon Police Department to report he had received a telephone call from the auditor’s office indicating a customer had walked into the fiscal office, was looking at some records, “snatched” the original records from the countertop and “took off out the door.”
“So, basically, he stole a bunch of records from the auditor,” Rowan told dispatch, adding the auditor’s office staff knew the person who took the records.
About 20 minutes later, Miller and Chardon police officer William Bernakis returned to the auditor’s office with the documents. As Jacob and other employees checked to make sure all of the documents were returned, Laurie re-entered the office.
The two court employees were then asked to leave the office and Bernakis escorted them outside to the sidewalk, where Duncan joined them. Later, Geauga County Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand arrived after leaving a meeting at the Geauga County Courthouse.
While Bernakis talked with Miller and Laurie, telling them not to return to the auditor’s office, Hildenbrand and Duncan went inside to talk with Walder, who wanted the pair charged with theft. He was told to get an opinion from Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz on whether a crime had been committed.
According to the sheriff, Flaiz told Walder the proper procedure was to file a police report, with witness statements, and have everything submitted to City of Chardon Police Prosecutor Jim Gillette, who would determine whether any misdemeanor crimes had been committed.
Everyone returned to their offices until a little after 11 a.m., when Laurie and Miller returned a third time to the auditor’s office. This time, though, Jacob said auditor’s staff purposely did not engage with them.
Instead, Jacob called Chardon police to request an officer return to the auditor’s office, stating two individuals who had been disruptive multiple times in the office that morning, and who had been previously advised by an officer to leave the office, had returned.
When asked why the individuals were there, Jacob told the dispatcher the individuals were not welcome in the office.
“They have been asked repeatedly not to be there. Now they are trespassing. We need an officer to get them out. They won’t leave our office,” she told the dispatcher.
Duncan returned to the office and Laurie and Miller were again escorted outside, where he explained they could face criminal trespass charges, even in a public building.
“They were on the sidewalk for about 10 or 15 minutes,” Jacob said, adding they appeared to be having a calm, civil conversation.
“And then the judge comes down and just starts screaming,” she said. “I saw him in his robe just berating this officer who was just trying to do his job.”
Jacob said when Duncan returned to the auditor’s office, he looked shaken. He told her the judge had just threatened to have him arrested.
Later that afternoon, Niehus told the Geauga County Maple Leaf Grendell came to his office and he “listened” to what the judge had to say.
“The judge and I have had a conversation, and I am going to reserve any comment until the situation at hand has been reviewed by the law director and police prosecutor,” Niehus said.
He added, “It’s unfortunate we’re where we’re at.”
History of Threats
Friday morning, Laurie issued what she characterized as a “statement containing a true and accurate representation” of the events of June 27. She emailed her statement to Gillette, Bernakis, Niehus, Flaiz, Geauga County Commissioners and county Administrator Gerry Morgan.
“Mr. Miller, Ms. Laurie and the lieutenant were discussing the practical implications of prohibiting court fiscal staff from visiting the auditor’s office when Judge Grendell joined the conversation,” Laurie wrote.
“Judge Grendell stated that he is going to write an order directing court staff to visit public offices and interact with public officials and their staff as necessary to conduct the court’s official business, and that if anyone, including law enforcement, attempts to impede upon the court’s ability to conduct its official business, they would face potential contempt charges and penalty,” she said. “Judge Grendell never threatened to arrest the officer.”
Grendell has a history of threatening to jail those who he feels interfere with his court’s business.
In 2014, he threatened to jail former county Auditor Frank Gliha for refusing to pay for newspaper ads that were placed in six local newspapers. A year later, he threatened to hold Chardon City Councilwoman and Geauga County GOP Chairman Nancy McArthur in contempt of court for expressing opinions about his mental health, among other things, to a party in a juvenile court case.
Then, in 2017, he threatened to jail two Chester Township trustees after they refused to enter into a new management agreement with the township park board.
Months later, he threatened to jail the assistant director of the county’s Department of Job and Family Services and a then 75-year-old caseworker for reportedly questioning one of his orders in a child support case.
In her statement, Laurie also said an employee of the auditor’s office told Miller he could take the documents and return them after they were signed.
“Needless to say, Kim Laurie’s accounting of the events, people involved and facts is pure fiction,” Walder said when asked to comment on her statement.
He explained his staff would never allow public records under their control to be removed from the office.
“Seth Miller, a former auditor employee, knows that,” added Walder.
Laurie also called the accusation that she and Miller were causing a disturbance “inexplicable.”
However, witnesses and documents show the auditor’s office has been on the receiving end of harassment from Laurie and court employees for at least several months, mostly centered on requests by the auditor’s office for supporting documentation of court expenses.
In May, the auditor’s office requested evidentiary support to pay vendors that created the large blue “Good Deeds” program signs seen around the county.
Instead of submitting a photo, Jacob said Laurie submitted 540 full-color printed pages of the sign, broken up into pieces that could – with enough floor space – be reconstituted into a large-scale version of the sign.
The cost to taxpayers for the full-color print job: $27.
When asked for documentation on a water cooler contract with Sunrise Springs, Jacob said the court submitted an empty five-gallon jug with a receipt stuffed in the spout.
Asked about Thursday’s escalation of hostilities, Jacob said the theft of fiscal paperwork just took things too far.
“This is not the first time they’ve caused disruptions,” she said. “It’s the first time they’ve stolen something.”
Jacob said other court employees are welcome to come to the auditor’s office to conduct business, but Laurie’s and Miller’s presence are not necessary.
“There’s nothing we need to do with them that can’t be done via email or interoffice mail,” she added.
Call for Action
On Friday, Walder also emailed Morgan to explain Thursday’s confrontation and ask county commissioners to take action.
“It is completely unacceptable for any county employee or elected (official) to threaten our law enforcement officers,” Walder wrote.
He pointed out men and women in law enforcement face unimaginable obstacles in their line of duty.
“We should not tolerate anyone, even if they are wearing a judge’s robe, to threaten and intimidate them in the performance of their duty,” Walder said. “I am asking the county commissioners to consider sanctioning Judge Grendell in open session for his unacceptable behavior.”
Walder also told Morgan he cannot tolerate county employees repeatedly disrupting his office.
“No different than at any public meeting, people that disrespect or hinder the work of the elected body are subject to removal and repeat offenders have been permanently banned from attendance,” he said.
In addition, Walder also asked commissioners to provide a sheriff’s deputy to guard his office, as his employees feel serious concern for their safety.
He said he is working with the county’s maintenance department on a simple and inexpensive fix for the entrance to his office that would increase security.
“I ask for your support on this initiative,” wrote Walder. “Our employees are our largest and most important asset, without a fiscal staff, I cannot pay the county’s bills.”
John Karlovec contributed to this story.