By Phil Trexler
An Akron judge accepted a plea bargain and then urged the elated criminal defendant to share his joy with his family and to remember her in the upcoming November election.
The exchange between Akron Municipal Judge Kathryn Michael and the defendant took place in open court earlier this year and is at the center of an Ohio Supreme Court disciplinary investigation.
It is the second campaign-related complaint lodged against Michael this year.
A Democrat, Michael is running for a seat on Summit County Common Pleas Court. She is opposing Judge Tammy O’Brien on the Nov. 6 ballot.
County GOP Executive Director Debbie Walsh filed the complaint this month. A panel from the Supreme Court’s board of commissioners on grievances and discipline this week found probable cause of a campaign violation.
A full hearing will be held next month.
On Wednesday, Michael said she regretted the “off-the-cuff’’ comments to the defendant, but the plea agreement in no way affected her decision.
According to court transcripts of the exchange between Michael and the defendant, the judge approved a plea deal already arranged between city prosecutors and the defense attorney for Darius Gurley, who was in court facing a felony charge of receiving stolen property.
Gurley, 25, agreed to plead no contest when prosecutors reduced the charge to a misdemeanor and dismissed a suspended driver’s license charge. Michael then gave Gurley, a three-time convicted felon, a suspended jail sentence.
“Ms. Kathryn Michael, I wanted to say thanks,” Gurley said during the June hearing.
“For what?” the judge replied.
“For helping me out,” the defendant said.
“Well, I’m glad I’m able to,” Michael said. “And I don’t get a thank-you very often, so thank you for that ... I appreciate you very much.”
Several minutes later, the hearing was about to close. At this point, Michael appears to urge Gurley to share his pleasure with members of his family in an effort to garner votes for her race with O’Brien.
“Tell all your family how you feel about me because I’m running this year for Common Pleas Court,” Michael told the defendant.
“Oh, you’re trying to go for Common Pleas Court,” Gurley said.
“I am,” the judge said. “I’m trying to go for my promotion, so tell your family.”
“I got you,” the defendant said. “OK. Thank you; thank you.”
Judge before panel Oct. 4
Michael will appear before the disciplinary panel Oct. 4 in Columbus. She said she is insulted by accusations that she orchestrated the plea deal and used the occasion to campaign for votes.
She said the plea agreement was reached a day earlier between the attorneys, just like thousands of other cases that come to the courthouse. She said she merely approved the agreement and made the comments to the jovial defendant in jest.
“I really regret making that statement,” Michael said. “But the resolution in this case was absolutely appropriate. There were no special favors or deals here in this case. It was an off-the-cuff comment that was made after the hearing concluded.
“I took his plea, I wrote it up and he was very gracious with me, and I was very gracious with him. And I made this off-the-cuff statement. The hearing was over.”
Efforts to reach Gurley and his attorney, David Lombardi, for comment were unsuccessful.
Lombardi, a Republican, is running this year for a common pleas seat held by Judge Paul Gallagher.
Assistant City Prosecutor Craig Morgan said Wednesday that the plea deal was routine and he had no recollection of Michael’s comments to the defendant. He declined to comment further.
Walsh weighs in
Walsh issued a statement Wednesday calling Michael’s conduct “egregious” and said she was pleased the complaint was being investigated.
“While I am dismayed that Judge Michael took part in these egregious actions, I am grateful that the board of commissioners will be looking into them,” Walsh said.
The disciplinary investigation also will focus on statements made on Michael’s website regarding O’Brien and her appointment to the bench in 2011 by Gov. John Kasich. Judicial campaign races are supposed to be nonpartisan elections. “... I am asking for your support in defeating a Kasich appointed judge who was not elected to her position as a judge,” Michael is quoted on her website.
O’Brien said in a telephone interview Wednesday that she is “concerned with the tone” of Michael’s campaign, but she declined to comment further.
Michael has been a municipal judge since 2005.
Earlier this year, the court issued a cease-and-desist order amid allegations that her campaign improperly accepted a $25,000 donation from her ex-husband. In July, a five-judge panel fined Michael $2,500 on judicial conduct violations for improperly accepting the campaign donation. It also fined her for improper wording on her campaign material.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.