Saturday, October 9, 2004

County will wall off Powers' courtroom

By Janice Morse
Enquirer staff writer

LEBANON - Warren County is installing a security door to keep Judge Dallas Powers - accused by five court employees of sexual harassment - from having access to any court office other than his own.

Powers will still be able to get into his chambers, but a door controlled by a security card reader will block the corridor that leads to other court offices.

County Commissioner Pat South said county officials decided to take that action Friday because Powers, 70, made an unexpected visit to the court and left employees on edge.

Some even threatened to leave work after Powers showed up Wednesday morning despite assurances through his lawyer that he would stay away while investigations of alleged misconduct continue, South said. Since Aug. 30, five employees have filed sexual-harassment complaints against Powers.

The county commissioners referred the complaints to a special investigator who has sent the complaints to the Ohio Attorney General's office.

Lawyer Charles Rittgers, who represents several court employees, told county commissioners in a letter dated Thursday: "No legitimate business purpose is served by his admission to courthouse property because he is no longer hearing cases." Rittgers urged commissioners to "take immediate action to bar Judge Powers completely from the facility."

But South said commissioners couldn't do that.

"Our board of commissioners has no authority at present to keep the judge from going into county court," she said, after consulting with the county prosecutor's office.

The security door "is the best solution that we can come up with."

Powers' lawyer, John D. Smith, said the idea of restricting movements of an elected judge is "absolutely absurd."

"I think that everyone has totally overreacted," he said.

Smith said Powers "apparently needed to get something from his desk or a file or something" Wednesday. Powers walked a few steps inside an employee entrance and closed the door to his chambers without talking to anyone, Smith said.

But Rittgers' letter says, "His presence at the courthouse is very distressing to the employees ... (and) his continued presence at the courthouse could compromise the investigation by intimidating witnesses."

Rittgers' letter also tells commissioners that allowing Powers unsupervised access raises another concern: "The county cannot guarantee that documents, computer data and videotape recordings essential to the investigation are adequately protected."

Rittgers' letter said he wanted a court order to bar anyone from destroying any records that might pertain to the investigation.

South said the door wouldn't cost much, possibly a couple hundred dollars. The county already owns an extra door and security-card reader, she said. County staff will install it.

The door wouldn't be necessary if the judge had stayed away, South said: "We want the judge to live up to his pledge to stay away during this investigative period and let the fears of the staff calm down and let them do their jobs."

South said the commissioners' office received a phone call from the court staff Wednesday, "very upset that Judge Powers was in there."

Powers' security card was swiped through a card-reading device, allowing entry to the court's west door at 9:45 a.m. and allowing exit at 10:33 a.m. Wednesday, County Administrator Bob Price said.

County records show the card was used on four other dates since officials acknowledged the first complaint: Sept. 4, 10, 20 and 22.


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