Weaver on Ohio public records issue

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Bedford city and municipal court officials have refused to release records -- specifically grand jury subpoenas -- related to a county public corruption investigation.

According to attorneys and citizen advocates, those records, once received by a city official or employee, become public record.

Last week Bedford officials declined to release to The Plain Dealer subpoenas for the appearance of city officials or employees in front of a Cuyahoga County grand jury as well as subpoenas requesting city records.

Officials from Bedford Municipal Court also would not release similar subpoenas.

Bedford City Manager Henry Angelo said the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's office had advised the city not to release the subpoenas.

Late Monday, the prosecutor's office sent a letter to the city outlining their position – that the subpoenas and the records requested are governed by laws of criminal procedure that allow grand juries to work in secret.

Assistant County Prosecutor Matthew Meyer, who heads the office's public corruption unit, said those records are not subject to public records law. 

However, lawyers who are experts in public records law disagree with that assertion. They say the laws Meyer cites pertain to prosecutors and courts – not municipal officials who receive the subpoenas to produce the records.

Mark Weaver, a Columbus attorney and public records expert, said the city should release the subpoenas. He said Ohio Criminal Rule 6 – which the prosecutor's office mentioned -- deals with grand jury secrecy, does not apply to the public documents at the city.

"It's ridiculous,'' said Weaver, who served as a top deputy to former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery. "Criminal Rule 6 applies to the prosecutor. To say that Criminal Rule 6 stops the recipient of the subpoena from releasing the subpoena as a public record is incorrect. If the city law director's office has copies of the subpoenas, it must release them promptly.''

In a letter to city officials, Meyer references appeals court and Ohio Supreme Court case decisions regarding grand jury related records. The cases, however, focus on requests made to prosecutors and courts – not city officials.

During the massive federal corruption probe that had tentacles across the county, municipalities, school districts and county government officials released similar subpoenas issued by a federal grand jury.

Subpoenas often show what records or information investigators are after. In the federal corruption cases, they indicated certain businesses or public officials federal prosecutors were looking for information about. 

"As far as I know, they are public record once they've been delivered," said attorney Timothy D. Smith, an emeritus professor of Journalism at Kent State University and Ohio public records law expert.  "I'm not aware of any exceptions that would get them off the hook," he said.

Angelo said Monday that the city would comply with public records requests made by The Plain Dealer for documents other than the subpoenas, including information about Law Director Ken Schuman who last month went on medical leave shortly after Municipal Judge Harry Jacob III also took a leave of absence. State agents searched Schuman's home and private law office last week. His attorney James McDonnell declined to comment. Jacob could not be reached for comment.

The prosecutor's office, along with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Bedford police, are looking into potential corruption in the city and court – some of it related to a massage parlor operating in the city that was raided in September. Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said in a recent county meeting that he expected new public corruption charges related to a brothel investigation.

Prosecutors said the parlor was actually a brothel and indicted 71-year-old James Walsh.

Walsh operated the brothel out an office building that housed his now-defunct insurance business, prosecutors said.

He has pleaded not guilty to charges of promoting prostitution and money laundering. He is expected in court tomorrow and has asked a judge to return to him an SUV and other items seized during raids of the business and of his estranged wife's home. Richard Drucker, his attorney, has not returned calls for comment.

According to a filing by prosecutors in Walsh's case, the investigation involves "a conspiracy involving the defendant and others and numerous criminal offenses."

Reporter John Caniglia contributed to this story.