Thursday, October 7, 2004

Staff describes judge as bully, intimidating

By Janice Morse
Enquirer staff writer

LEBANON -Years before five Warren County Court employees accused Judge Dallas Powers of sexual harassment, his behavior disturbed people - but many felt too intimidated to complain.

While some say Powers behaved professionally with them, others describe a judge who may have overstepped his bounds. At times, they say, Powers butted heads with other public officials, belittled employees, chastised jurors, berated crime victims and took unusual steps on behalf of certain criminal defendants.

Warren County Court Judge Dallas Powers and County Probation Officer Libbie Gerondale wait Sept. 22 in the Warren County Courts Building in Lebanon to testify in a hearing involving Gerondale's nephew. Powers' alledged affair with Gerondale is at the center of sexual-harasssment accusations against the judge.
(Enquirer photo/GLENN HARTONG)
"His demeanor and his attitude and everything leads people to be afraid of him," said Bob Marquardt, 66, who was Powers' bailiff for about six years before he was fired abruptly in 2001.

Simmering tensions became public a month ago, after a court employee said she felt sexually harassed by the judge's comments and conduct.

Four more female employees lodged similar complaints, most tied to the 70-year-old married judge's alleged affair with a 34-year-old subordinate.

Now the Ohio Attorney General's Office is investigating whether Powers violated any laws, and the Ohio Supreme Court's disciplinary branch has been asked to determine whether he breached ethical requirements.

At the same time, county officials are working to stave off a threatened lawsuit and have taken away Powers' control over employees and reorganized the county court.

Powers remains on a voluntary, paid leave as the investigations continue. He repeatedly has declined to comment.

County Treasurer Jim LeFevers, professionally acquainted with Powers for more than a decade, said he hopes people will reserve judgment.

"He's not charged with anything, but if he is, we need to let the system work for him, just as he has let it work for so many others," LeFevers said.

'Stress level very high'

As a county court judge since 1989, Powers typically decides about 4,500 cases a year, mostly traffic and misdemeanor cases from Warren County. He also served as administrative judge, meaning that he was in charge of supervising the court clerk's office and probation department.

Marquardt, the ex-bailiff, said he thinks court employees learned not to cross Powers, partly because of what happened to him.

"If you wanted to keep your job, you keep your mouth shut," he said.

Powers accused Marquardt of dozing off in court and fired him 20 days later. But Marquardt said the timing of his dismissal - one business day after he disagreed with Powers over sick leave - makes him think he was fired for a different reason.

"I think standing up to him, telling him that I knew the way it was ... he did not like that, he did not care for that, and that's the reason I was out."

Shortly after the first sexual-harassment allegation against Powers surfaced Aug. 30, Judge James Heath took over Powers' cases and administrative duties. Heath supervises the four-member probation department, and county commissioners shifted the remaining dozen court clerks to Jim Spaeth, the elected Common Pleas clerk of courts.

Spaeth said he encountered a stressed-out staff; employees said they felt Powers degraded them with comments on personal matters such as weight-loss efforts and eating habits.

The overall atmosphere seemed negative and tense, he said.

"Without a doubt, the stress level was very high - and now there's a big sense of relief," Spaeth said.

For some of the 17-member staff, the office tensions date to December 1999, when Powers ordered Court Clerk Terry Smith to hire Libbie Gerondale as a deputy clerk.

In a Sept. 21 letter threatening to sue Powers and the county, Terry Smith's lawyer, Sheila Smith, alleges that Gerondale was Powers' mistress and that Powers gave Gerondale preferential treatment almost from the start. At the same time, the letter alleges, the judge discriminated against other female employees who did not provide him with sexual favors.

Sheila Smith and Terry Smith are not related.

Terry Smith said Powers punished her when, as a supervisor, she tried to make Gerondale follow office rules about proper attire and work hours. "(Gerondale) continued to come and go from the office as she pleased, and made it clear that she had Judge Powers' favor," the letter says. Terry Smith continued complaining to Powers, "letting him know that the favoritism (he) showed to Ms. Gerondale was not fair to the employees who worked hard and followed the rules."

Terry Smith also raised concerns about Gerondale's accumulation of overtime. Gerondale was paid for more than 400 hours of overtime in eight months - four times the amount paid to three co-workers combined. The overtime issue has been referred to investigators.

Gerondale said in a letter last week to Warren County commissioners that her overtime was legitimately earned. In court Sept. 23, in connection with a case involving a relative, she denied any unusual relationship with Powers. She was demoted Sept. 28 from probation officer to probation clerk, meaning a decrease in pay.

Gerondale has declined repeated requests for interviews. She and her lawyer complained in separate letters to county commissioners that she, too, is being treated unfairly. Her work environment had become intolerable "as the result of apparent acrimony directed to her from her fellow employees and her supervisor," attorney Bill Kaufman's letter says.

Clashes with county officials

Some people outside the court - from the county prosecutor to a crime victim - have clashed with Powers or questioned his conduct.

They, too, paint a picture of a judge who sometimes used his authority in ways they allege may be inappropriate or unethical. Warren County Commissioner Pat South has said complaints about Powers have been referred to the Ohio Supreme Court's Disciplinary Counsel. The counsel can neither confirm nor deny that it is investigating unless it issues formal disciplinary charges against a lawyer or judge.

According to investigative documents from the Warren County Sheriff's Office, two years ago both Powers and Chief Probation Officer Dick Kilburn suggested that Gerondale file a sexual-harassment complaint against Sheriff's Deputy Kevin White, alleging that he made a remark about her body and was flirting with her.

Powers urged Sheriff Tom Ariss to fire White. Instead, the sheriff gave White a written reprimand and reassigned him.

Powers accused the sheriff's internal investigators of bias, and he barred court personnel from talking to investigators a day after the investigation started.

Ariss declined to comment on that case or to discuss Powers.

County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel also did not want to talk about the judge or a public run-in she had with him earlier this year.

In June, Powers publicly accused her of misconduct and called for her resignation, saying it was inappropriate for Hutzel to talk to her teenage nephew about his arrest on a drunken-driving charge.

But Hutzel said she was acting as a parent, not a prosecutor, when she spoke to her nephew, who was in her custody. She asked the Disciplinary Counsel to investigate. It found she did nothing wrong.

Concerns also have been raised about Powers' intervention in the case of Brad Willoughby, an 18-year-old Dayton-area man who was accused of kidnapping his former lawyer and trying to kill her in Springboro earlier this year.

In that case, Powers dismissed initial charges against Willoughby. In an unusual move, Powers met with Willoughby without his lawyer while new charges were pending, Springboro Police Chief Jeffrey Kruithoff said.

Kruithoff said a Powers staffer delivered a video of that meeting to the police station. The chief said Powers wanted the police to review the video for evidence of possible crimes against Willoughby.

"I felt very uncomfortable watching that tape," Kruithoff said. "I never saw a judge get so aggressively involved in a case - and that's based on 30-some years in this business."

A Warren County grand jury indicted Willoughby. He was acquitted of kidnapping and attempted murder but was found guilty of disrupting public service and drug possession.

In another case, crime victim Ron Applegate said he is considering filing a Disciplinary Counsel complaint about the way Powers treated him and handled his case.

A year ago, Applegate, 35, was beaten so severely that he required plastic surgery. Jeremy R. Neal, the man charged in Applegate's assault, told Powers at his court hearing in April that the fight happened because Applegate was romantically involved with his estranged wife.

Powers told Applegate he got what he deserved: "You've heard that those that play have to pay?...He finds out that you're having an affair with his wife - what do you expect him to do?"

Although Neal pleaded no contest, Powers found him not guilty.

Applegate had been told he could expect Powers to convict Neal, 28, of the crime and sentence him to jail. So Powers' ruling stunned him.

"It was like getting beaten up all over again - just this time by a 70-year-old judge I could do nothing to," Applegate said. "He treated me like I was the criminal."

Jack Guttenberg, dean at Capital University's law school in Columbus, said it is highly unusual for a judge to acquit a person who makes a no-contest plea.

In a no-contest plea, a person neither admits nor denies the accusations "and they're leaving it to the judge to make a determination," Guttenberg said.

During almost three decades as a lawyer, Guttenberg said, he has never seen a judge acquit someone who entered a plea of no contest.

Last December, Powers' courtroom comment soured a juror in another case. A jury acquitted Scott R. Peeler, 19, son of Mason prosecutor Robert Peeler, of driving under the influence of alcohol. After the verdict, Powers told the jury: "He effectively beat the system. ...I think he was under the influence."

Juror Andrew Blumberg, 30, of Springboro, said he took offense at Powers' comment:

"I felt he chastised the jury and said that, basically, we reached the wrong conclusion."

Powers profile

• Personal: He and wife, Joyce, live in Clearcreek Township and have two grown children, Tammyra, and Dallas Jr.

• Education, professional background: Graduate of University of Dayton and Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University. Former prosecutor in Springboro and Carlisle. Attorney since 1968.

• Elected Warren County Court judge in 1988. Term expires at end of 2006




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