The Akron city prosecutor voiced concern Monday over a police incident linking Judge Joy Malek Oldfield and a public defender assigned to her courtroom.
Prosecutor Doug Powley said he learned of the public defender’s arrest — and a Copley police officer’s allegations that the lawyer was with Oldfield in a state of undress in the back seat of a car that smelled of alcohol — only by reading Sunday’s edition of the Akron Beacon Journal.
City prosecutors routinely oppose Assistant Public Defender Catherine Loya inside Oldfield’s courtroom in Akron Municipal Court, and Powley said he intends to investigate the relationship to make sure the state is getting a fair shake in the court.
“I think the public needs to be assured that the cases are being properly prosecuted,” he said. “I think there are boundaries between the relationship judges and lawyers have and times when it’s appropriate for the judges to recuse themselves.”
Loya has continued to defend criminal cases before Oldfield — and on occasion been driven to work by the judge — despite her arrest Feb. 5 on drunken driving-related charges in which the judge was a passenger.
Oldfield has not publicly commented. In an interview Monday, her attorney, John Hill, reiterated his belief the Copley police officer’s report is “untrue.” He said the judge and the public defender are not involved in a personal relationship.
“There’s a lot of gossip going on about this now, as we know this happens around the courthouse,” Hill said. “Any suggestion, gossip, about an extramarital affair, not only with this woman, but with anyone, is completely false. And Joy is going to fight these kinds of things to the full extent of the law. You can quote me on that.
“Any suggestion that there was some sort of unusual or inappropriate relationship with this lawyer is false.”
Hill said the judge, who is married with two children, is intent on learning why the officer’s report includes a supplement with the allegations about activity in the back seat that he contends are false.
“How many times have we seen people go into court, take an oath and lie? Police officers or anybody else,” he said. “How many times have we seen police see something, and then beef it up to help their case?
“Whether that’s going on here, whether it’s just innocent misperception, or whether there are political things going on here, I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”
According to a report, an officer found Loya and Oldfield in a parked car stopped in a strip mall about 1:45 a.m. The officer said as he approached the Toyota, he “observed a female’s head raise up from the back seat and look out the back window.”
He then saw “two female subjects placing their clothing items on and then exit the back seat and move to the front seats.’’ The officer said he smelled alcohol coming from the car when he talked to the women.
Oldfield, 36, identified herself as a judge and said it was she who had been drinking. Loya, however, was charged with having physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.
Chief stands by report
Copley police Chief Michael Mier said Monday he saw Officer Thomas Ballinger’s supplemental report the morning of Feb. 6 and that it is “an accurate reflection of what took place,” written shortly after the incident.
Mier said report supplements generally are not immediately available to the public and are given to the defense during the discovery process. He said he is investigating who obtained the supplement and how it might have been released prematurely.
“I don’t think it was anybody on our end, I think it was something supplied to [Loya’s] attorney, and then got out from that person,” Mier said.
Loya’s attorney, Edward Bonetti, has declined to comment.
Mier said Ballinger would not be available for comment about the events until the case is resolved. He said an internal investigation is under way, focusing on complaints Oldfield’s attorney lodged about the accuracy of the officer’s report.
Ballinger, the chief said, “stands by his statement” and is “not happy” with Oldfield questioning the report’s veracity. Oldfield, who said she had been drinking and unable to drive, was not cited by Ballinger, and the officer kept her name off the initial incident report.
“A lot of what [Ballinger] did, he really did, not wanting to front this judge out,” Mier said. “When you try to be nice, sometimes things come back to haunt you a bit.”
While Akron’s chief prosecutor expressed concerns about Oldfield and Loya’s relationship, the assistant assigned to the courtroom said Monday she supports the judge.
Assistant defends judge
Assistant City Prosecutor Gertrude Wilms said she is comfortable with the conduct of Oldfield and Loya and believes no ethical violations have taken place.
Last year, Wilms took a leave of absence to serve as Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic’s campaign manager. Wilms, Plusquellic and Oldfield are all Democrats.
Loya has been assigned to defend indigent defendants in Oldfield’s courtroom since about the time the judge took office in early January after she won a narrow victory over Republican incumbent Tom McCarty.
“There’s nothing inappropriate happening,” Wilms said Monday. “I go to events where the judge is, too. We both belong to the same political party; we’re at the same events all the time.
“She’s doing a fantastic job, I’m proud of the work she’s doing, I’m proud of the work Catherine’s doing.
“There’s not a relationship, so I have no concern. [Oldfield] is a happily married person. They have a working relationship. … I have not seen anything that gives me pause.”
Wilms said she was told of the incident weeks ago. In fact, she knows that since the incident, Oldfield occasionally has driven Loya to and from work because the public defender lost her driving privileges following her arrest and refusal to provide a breath or blood sample.
Loya, 30, has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge in Barberton Municipal Court. Records show she had a similar conviction in 2009 in Stow Municipal Court.
“I think the judge felt somewhat responsible [for Loya losing her license],” Wilms said. “She gave the judge a ride home; it kind of happened when they were out for the evening. I don’t have any problem with that. I’ve actually given judges a ride myself.”
Powley said none of his assistants has complained of any rulings Oldfield has made. However, he said, the incident between the judge and public defender requires some review. He would not say if he intends to seek a meeting with Oldfield.
The Akron Bar Association is looking at the incident for possible referral to the Ohio Supreme Court.
“I think it raises some concerns,” Powley said. “I think there are boundaries, and the public has to have confidence that judges are not hearing cases that they shouldn’t hear. I think it is something that needs to be looked into and addressed. I don’t know that all the facts are known. Remember, there are two sets of facts being offered.”
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or email@example.com.