It started as a favor to a political friend.
What followed was a criminal investigation into the conduct of Stow Municipal Court Judge Kim Hoover and then claims of retaliation by a fired bailiff, leaving in its wake an ongoing feud between Hoover and fellow Judge Lisa Coates.
It was Hoover who did the favor — a driving record search of a female friend of Wayne Jones, chairman of the Summit County Democrat Party.
It was Coates, who felt the records search — made by a bailiff on a secured law enforcement database on orders from Hoover — “could be a felony crime.” It was also Coates who triggered the criminal investigation, which ended earlier this year with no charges against Hoover.
Finally, it was the bailiff, James Rogers Jr., who is now claiming his firing — a day after the criminal case closed — is retaliation for being a whistle-blower against the judge.
For now, Rogers’ appeal of his termination is before the Ohio State Personnel Board of Review.
Meanwhile, Coates and Hoover no longer speak to each other, despite working in the same courthouse.
Hoover calls Coates’ actions “deceitful” and he said he was “stunned” to learn of the investigation six weeks after it began. He said he did nothing wrong and nothing he nor his court wouldn’t do for an ordinary citizen.
Stark County prosecutors agreed, and they declined to pursue criminal charges against Hoover.
Chief Assistant Prosecutor Dennis Barr said Thursday that there was not enough evidence to suggest that Hoover intentionally broke any law nor that his actions of searching the database were for nefarious purposes.
Several voice concerns
The story begins in mid-December, when Hoover says he took a call from Jones, who was seeking help trying to confirm if his friend and sometimes personal driver had a suspended license.
Hoover first went to court co-worker Jamie Matvey and handed him a note with the woman’s name and Social Security number. The judge said the search was for personal reasons, a report shows.
After learning that the woman had no cases pending in the Stow court, Matvey told investigators that he refused Hoover’s request to search the LEADS computer, a protected computer database that is strictly for law enforcement purposes.
Matvey “explained to [Hoover] why running the female’s information into LEADS for personal reasons is against policy and securities. Matvey stated that this was very hard for him to do because of the respect he has for” Hoover, an Ohio Highway Patrol report shows.
Hoover left, and a couple days later the judge had his courtroom bailiff approach Rogers with the same request.
Matvey, according to reports, noticed Rogers performing the check and became angry, telling Rogers he could not run the records search without a local court case number and “definitely couldn’t do it for personal reasons.”
Within the last 18 months, a Stow court worker was fired for a similar infraction when she accessed the law enforcement computer for personal reasons, Coates said.
In fact, there have been several instances in recent years where law enforcement officers throughout Ohio have been fired after using LEADS for personal reasons.
In an interview Thursday accompanied by his attorney Michael Creveling, Rogers said he voiced concerns to Hoover’s bailiff when she told him there was no Stow case number, which he said policy requires in order to perform a check.
“She said if you want a case number so bad, go talk to Judge Hoover yourself,” he said.
Holding both the woman’s LEADS and a Computerized Criminal History (CCH) printout, Rogers said he went into the judge’s chamber and asked about a case number.
“[Hoover] then looked at me and said ‘I am trying to do everything I can without running this girl’s driving record here at the court,’ ” Rogers said.
His attorney would not allow Rogers to elaborate.
After the meeting with Hoover — and recalling his conversation with Matvey — Rogers, who had worked at the courthouse for six years, took his concerns to Coates.
“I felt it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I felt weird about the situation. I felt awkward.”
Hoover defends actions
Hoover said that Rogers, Matvey and Coates all failed to ask him why he made the second request, which he believes led them to believe something was awry.
He said when no Stow case was found after his first request, he let the matter rest. Then he learned days later from Jones that the suspension may be due to a civil case in common pleas court.
That’s why, Hoover said, that he had his bailiff go to Rogers the second time.
“If you [search] LEADS when there is no case pending, then a judge can still say I want to see what the problem is to help this person get their license. That happens all day long in court,” he said.
“That is a legitimate reason to request the LEADS. I’ve done it many times.”
The retaliation allegations against Hoover are contained in a 35-page investigation released by the Highway Patrol and in an appeal filed by Rogers. In the complaint, Creveling writes that “Mr. Rogers was terminated from his employment in retaliation for his reporting that Judge Kim Hoover, through his bailiff, demanded that Mr. Rogers run a LEADS report on the girlfriend of a local politician.
“Upon realizing that this was a felony, Mr. Rogers reported the conduct. On the day after the closing of the investigation into the inappropriate LEADS run, Mr. Rogers was terminated by the court administrator.”
In an interview this week, Coates reiterated her belief that Hoover’s actions — especially as a favor to a political friend — were potentially illegal.
She said she felt the judicial code of conduct mandated that she report the incident.
“I felt that based on the plain reading of the law, if it was true, that’s a felony,” she said. “I felt it was best that it be investigated by a third-party person rather than internally because it involved my colleague, the boss around here ... I had an ethical responsibility to do that.”
Coates disputes Hoover’s contention that searches are routinely done for people who ask, whether or not they have a case in the Stow court. She said court policies are written to prohibit personal use of LEADS or CCH databases.
“We fired someone for doing this 18 months before,” Coates said. “I can tell you emphatically that [searches] do not happen unless they have a case in this court and they’re asking to get driving privileges.”
Coates said the fact that Hoover sought the information as a personal favor to Jones raised the bar, and in her mind, made the actions of Hoover potentially criminal.
“What was said to me was that this was run for a personal matter. That’s what was said,” she said. “That bothers me. That’s a new ballgame. That’s something that you’re prohibited to be doing.”
The report to the Highway Patrol was made in late December. Hoover said he did not learn of it until Coates called a meeting in early February. In the meeting also were Rogers, Matvey and Hoover’s bailiff.
Coates went over her concerns, but Hoover said he wasn’t immediately aware the meeting was about him.
“When the meeting ended, I said, ‘What did they do? Who did what?’ And she said, ‘No, you.’ I was startled,” he said.
“I was stunned by it, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding since none of you know the whole story. ...’ I was angry at Judge Coates because she didn’t come to me and tell me what happened.”
Bailiff challenges layoff
Afterward, Hoover gave a statement to Highway Patrol investigators. In late February, he learned the case was closed without charges being filed against him.
A day later, Rogers, 25, was given his layoff notice. He was earning $30,000 a year to help support a wife and a newborn daughter.
Hoover said Rogers’ release was due to budget constraints and Rogers’ seniority, not revenge. He added that Rogers was offered his job back 30 days later, after Matvey left for another position.
Creveling said Rogers declined the return offer because Hoover insisted on disciplining Rogers for his conduct leading up to the investigations. Rogers is now seeking relief through the appeal process, which could include back pay, reinstatement and attorney’s fees. A hearing date has yet to be set.
Hoover said Rogers’ attorney wanted to negotiate a return, which the city declined to do.
“I believe Mr. Rogers is trying to parlay this into a payday and he’s using [the Beacon Journal] for that purpose,” he said.
As for Coates, Hoover has removed her as administrative judge of the court and aside from necessary court administration matters, has not spoken to his fellow jurist.
“I’m very angry,” he said. “Things are still tense between us personally. And I said to her that I had never been treated that way by anybody in my entire career. It was so deceitful to have this secret thing going on and not let me know about it for six weeks.”