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Monday, January 5, 2009

Bribery probe snares bailiff

Bribery probe snares bailiff
Defendants allegedly could buy secret friend in courtroom
The Cincinnati EnquirerBy Kimball Perry -January 2, 2009 -

Hoping to crack a federal drug case, investigators were listening in on telephone calls when they stumbled across a conversation that is sending shock waves through Hamilton County's judicial system. On that wiretap, federal officials heard what they believe was an attempt by convicted drug dealer Charles Johnson to buy his freedom by arranging a meeting with a court bailiff he hoped would fix his sentence. That alleged incident is the centerpiece of a criminal investigation into Damon Ridley, who was the bailiff for Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge John "Skip" West until Ridley was confronted with the allegations and resigned. Johnson's case has investigators poring over thousands of court documents involving criminal cases before West over the last five years. They are looking at why some cases presided over by West never had their sentences carried out and why other cases before him had no activity for years.

The issue is whether Ridley, 37, who also is the girls' varsity basketball coach at Woodward High, accepted money or favors in exchange for fixing sentences handed down by West or delaying them so long that thousands of dollars in fines and court fees were never paid. Bailiffs run the day-to-day operations of courtrooms and schedule when cases are heard. Johnson was arrested in July 2007, accused of selling heroin and cocaine in Over-the-Rhine. He was staring at 8½ years behind bars after police caught him with drugs and $2,165 in cash. That's when Johnson made a few calls, heard on the wiretaps, and arranged a meeting at a Spring Grove Avenue baseball field to try to avoid jail time. Johnson, now also under a federal drug indictment, was offering to pay Ridley $1,000 to help Johnson fix his criminal case so he wouldn't go to prison, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said. Ridley showed up at the baseball field, Deters said, but the prosecutor wouldn't discuss the issue further, citing an ongoing investigation. Johnson pleaded guilty March 25 before West to reduced charges that still could have sent him to prison for 5½ years. Instead, West sentenced Johnson to probation and to serve up to six months in the River City Correctional Center, a drug-rehabilitation center run by Hamilton County judges. Investigators asked Ridley on Oct. 29 about the allegation. He resigned the next day. "I can tell you (Ridley) has told us numerous stories," Deters said.

None of what Deters says is true, Ridley told The Enquirer. "I haven't done anything wrong," Ridley said, denying he ever took money or favors for altering sentences. Ridley confirms he was questioned by investigators who asked him if he took money to alter West's sentences - which he denied - but said he hasn't spoken to investigators "in the last two months." "They just put my name on a lot of stuff that is not true," Ridley said. Investigators, Ridley said, also asked him about his visits to Indiana's riverboat casinos, where Ridley admits he gambles often. Ridley resigned after being questioned, he said, to lessen any impact on the judge. "I have a lot of respect for Judge West and I wasn't going to bring anything (negative) to him," Ridley said. He declined to answer additional questions, he said, on the advice of his attorney. He refused to say who his attorney was. If the allegations are proved, Ridley's actions could be disastrous to the Hamilton County court system as the public - and criminals - may infer the judicial system was undermined by one person's greed. "When you've got someone putting their thumb on the scales of justice, it's a very serious offense," University of Cincinnati law professor Christo Lassiter said. "You lose faith in government and there is a very serious threat to the judicial branch.

"The whole idea is to have a neutral arbiter. Why do that if there is a judge whose decisions are being bought by a bailiff? We may as well not have a judicial system." Deters is unsure of what role, if any, the judge has in the delay of cases, but he doesn't believe West is involved in wrongdoing. "Wherever this leads, we will go," Deters said, "but it would shock me to my core if the judge was involved. The judge is cooperating with us." West has refused to talk about the investigation, referring questions to Deters. Because Johnson's case is one of many being looked at, Deters asked for help from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, an arm of the Ohio Attorney General. Investigators seized all of West's notes and files on the cases he presided over since 2003, shortly after Ridley became West's bailiff. In late November, Investigator McKinley Brown and several other prosecutor's staff took so many documents from West's fifth-floor courtroom they needed a flatbed to take them to the prosecutor's office. Ridley's work computer also was seized and its hard drive pulled for analysis. While on the bench, West talked about several of the stalled cases in question.

In three specific cases, West acknowledged from the bench that the case files he uses to track each case's progress contained handwriting that wasn't his. Generally, judges write their notes from each case on a case file or card they keep for their records. Some judges, though, cede the responsibility of maintaining the case file to their bailiffs. In each of those three cases, the person charged with a crime had no action taken on their case in at least two years. In each, West insisted he knew nothing about why those cases were dormant and noted there were no legal documents - especially none signed by him - that allowed the cases to be continued or set for another court date. Lawyers representing those three defendants admit they have been questioned by investigators about why the cases were dormant for years. Two of those lawyers - Kevin BoBo and Gloria Smith - said the investigators asked them if they had ever given Ridley money or loaned him money to continue the case. Each denied giving or lending Ridley money and denied any wrongdoing. But Ridley did borrow money from some lawyers, Deters said. "Some defense attorneys called us and said they loaned him money," Deters said.

At a Nov. 18 court hearing, West called the case of Josh Ludlum, who pleaded guilty Feb. 15, 2005 - 3½ years earlier - to attempted possession of cocaine. West sentenced Ludlum at that time to pay court costs and a fine. West then allowed Ludlum until March 15, 2005, to pay the fines and fees. But they were never paid. "I have no other record of this defendant being before this court," West said that day. "I have no indication that the fine or the court costs have been paid." The judge then turned to Brown, the prosecutor's investigator who was in the courtroom, and said, "Mr. Brown, this is one of those ones (cases) we discussed." "Yes sir," Brown responded. The second case in question that day involved the 2005 drug case against Gary Walker. "The entry that appears on the (judge's) card and not in my writing is that on 2/24/06, this matter was continued to 4/13/06 for plea or trial setting," West said. "There is no other entry, and I don't know what's happened since then."

In another case that day, Sakinah Thomas, a co-defendant of Walker, had her drug case called. It dated from 2005, three years before. Thomas was represented by attorney Smith. The week before, she told West that the case was still dormant. "You brought it to my attention last week and I'm very curious about that," West told Smith. "But more so, there is an investigator here and that's also curious. ... I know he wants to speak to your client." Smith confirmed she and her client had been interviewed by investigators about the case. West then noted that the last entry made on Thomas' case file was from March 9, 2006, which set the next court date for April 13, 2006. "I made no other notation," West said. "The next notation that appears on my note card is not in my writing, and it's dated 4/13/06, and it says 'continued to 5/10/06 ...' " In a Dec. 15 hearing on Thomas' case, her attorney told the judge she and Thomas had been to the courthouse "many times" to try to plead guilty and dispose of the case. "The case has always been continued," Smith told the judge. "By whom?" West asked. "Mr. Ridley," Smith answered. West also noted that all of the activity on the Thomas case "took place on dates when I wasn't in court" and there were no court entries continuing the case. "All of this is contrary to the way I do business," West told Smith.

Prosecutors became so frustrated with the slow pace of justice in West's courtroom that one, Katherine Pridemore, filed a legal motion requiring her to be contacted on a specific case that had been continued - without her knowledge or agreement - dozens of times. David Gvozdanovic was convicted Oct. 25, 2003, in West's room for trafficking in marijuana. Almost three years later, an exasperated Pridemore filed a motion that showed her frustration. Titled "State's Supplemental motion to be present for any further action taken on this case," the motion reads, in part: "On August 31, 2006, it came to the attention of the State that this case was yet again moved from the September 1, 2006 docket to September 11, 2006 without notice to the State, causing this case to be continued for the 34th time." The investigation has taken an emotional toll on West. West was close personally to Ridley, treating him like family. West and his family vacationed with Ridley and socialized with him. In West's courthouse chambers, there is a studio portrait of West, Ridley and another of West's court workers. Ridley worked for the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts office from April 16, 1997, until Nov. 15, 2002, when he began working as West's bailiff. Ridley's annual salary when he resigned after being confronted by investigators was $43,957. Deters predicted the investigators' audit of West's files would be complete within "two to three weeks."

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