Contempt of Court: We Need to Talk About Geauga County Judge Timothy Grendell

click to enlarge Contempt of Court: We Need to Talk About Geauga County Judge Timothy Grendell
Courtesy Geauga County Court of Common Pleas

The fact that Geauga County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Grendell employs an armed constable is something of a peculiarity. A constable. It sounds both old-fashioned and provincial, something you’d expect to encounter in a BBC period drama, not a 2022 news report. But in Geauga County, the wooded and largely rural territory to Cuyahoga County’s immediate east, the constable functions something like a manservant and errand boy for the judge.

According to his appointment orders, constable John A. Ralph is empowered to “serve, process and subpoena in all cases involving the court.” He was hired to this unusual post in 2012, a year after Grendell was himself dispatched to Geauga County from the statehouse by Ohio’s then-governor, John Kasich.

Grendell is a local boy, a St. Ignatius, John Carroll and Case Western Reserve University alumnus who served in the state legislature from 2000-2011. He is now among the most divisive and menacing figures in Northeast Ohio politics.

Few sources dare to speak openly about Grendell for fear of retaliation, but everyone knows that his constable has broad discretion to do his bidding. The whispered speculation is that John Ralph was hired because he’d be content—in fact delighted—to follow the judge’s orders without asking questions. Blind loyalty is required from Grendell, for though he has amassed a network of cronies and an army of foot soldiers from what remains of the Geauga County Tea Party, he has also alienated elected officials, mainstream Republican organizations, and county employees, not least members of the Sheriff’s Department, who have expressed uneasiness about carrying out his judicial will in the past.

To take a recent high-profile example, Grendell in early 2020 sent two teenage boys to jail for a weekend when they refused to resume visitation with their estranged father. The story alarmed legal experts and child advocates, and was outrageous enough to garner national headlines, though it was hardly the first time Grendell was accused of radical judicial overreach. A Lieutenant in the Geauga County Sheriff’s Department, in this case, was so discomfited that he penned a memo to his staff a few days later advising that in the future, verbal orders from the Judge would be insufficient justification for dragging kids to jail.

"The only times we should be taking juveniles into custody or to Portage is when we have had direct involvement with a juvenile via an unruly or delinquent issue and have [probable cause] for a charge and we contact the Judge directly for placement and he orders the juvenile into custody, we have an arrest warrant or written court order in hand...” the memo read. “In this above-mentioned incident, we had no charges and no [probable cause] for the lock up, simply the judge’s verbal order, which is not enough."

John Ralph has no such qualms. A personal buddy of Grendell’s who is rumored to have long aspired to leadership in actual law enforcement, the constable embraces his role as Grendell’s muscle on the streets of Chardon and throughout the adjacent boonies, where he has become a known quantity.

“Sure, I know John Ralph,” one resident told Scene last month on a reporting junket to Chardon. “He walks around with his open carry. You walk into Home Depot and there he is, open carrying.”

Ralph is the guy that Grendell sends to collect people. Like when a meeting was scheduled with advocates from the Protect Geauga Parks group at the Chardon Library, a neutral public location where the opposing parties could hash out one of their recurring disputes, Grendell sent Ralph over to deliver a message: The venue had changed. The meeting would now be held in Grendell’s courtroom across the street.

Grendell prefers to conduct business from his judicial seat, which many now understand that he regards, and expects others to approach, as a throne. The Protect Geauga Parks folks had no interest in prostrating themselves that day and so declined Ralph’s escort. They feared that in his own courtroom, Grendell would devise a way to hold them in contempt, one of his favorite tactics.

On June 24, 2020, a few weeks after Grendell sent the teenage brothers to the Portage County Jail, the case was accumulating media attention. Grendell’s printed statement that his job as juvenile court judge was “to protect the best interests of the children who come before the court” evidently wasn’t passing muster with the hounds at Cleveland’s TV news stations. Channel 5 investigative reporter Sarah Buduson was looking into the matter, and Fox 8 was sniffing around the edges, too. Both stations seemed likely to send reporters out to Chardon for a hearing the following day. To avoid this coverage, some speculated, Grendell made a last-minute schedule change, moving the hearing up from 2 p.m. to 10 a.m. He sent John Ralph to deliver notice of the time change to the parties in the case.

Stacy Hartman, the mother of the two boys, wasn’t at her home in Geauga County when Ralph arrived. Following a tip and his own initiative, he drove to her fiancé’s home in Windsor Township in Ashtabula County. Hartman wasn’t there either, but her fiancé was, and Ralph’s encounter with him resulted in criminal trespassing charges. In an affidavit, Hartman’s fiancé accused Ralph of lingering on his property for nearly 20 minutes; of placing his hand on his firearm to intimidate him into accepting the court documents; of making a series of bizarre and threatening statements; and of taking pictures of his home and shining his phone’s flashlight at him. In a later statement, he alleged that Ralph had caused more than $4,000 in property damage as he crushed a power transformer with his Jeep Cherokee on his way out.

The fourth-degree misdemeanor, which one source close to the case described to Scene as “piddly,” should have been open and shut. Never mind that it had taken more than a year to physically get Ralph into Ashtabula Western Court, as he had dodged the court summons for months. The prosecutors had video evidence on their side and fully expected that the jury would find Ralph guilty with minimal friction. In the words of one observer, the prosecution “had a field day” at trial.

But something strange happened.

After two drawn-out days of testimony, Ralph’s defense attorney Thomas Simon called for a Rule 29 acquittal, which would have cleared Ralph of the charges based on insufficient evidence. The attorney had invoked Rule 29 twice during the trial already and had been denied. But this time, presiding judge Michelle Fisher excused the jury to their meeting room and retired to her chambers. When she re-emerged, blanched and fumbling, she granted the Rule 29 motion and released the jury. Ralph was off the hook. Case closed.

The prosecution, and Hartman’s fiancé, were dumbfounded. What on earth had just happened?

A rumored explanation surfaced quickly, if quietly: Some thought Judge Grendell had shown up and met with Judge Fisher in private to put his thumb on the scales. He had been on the defense’s witness list, but never appeared in any formal capacity, though was seen in the courthouse.

Scene has confirmed no eyewitness accounts of Grendell’s communication with Fisher at the Ashtabula Western Court on November 17, 2021. Assistant Prosecutor Gene Barrett, for example, never left the courtroom during the time in question and did not see Grendell in person. Judge Fisher’s Clerk, Michele Mihalick, who served as bailiff on the case, denied to Scene that Fisher spoke with Grendell and acknowledged that doing so would have been wholly improper. A court employee who was said to have handled Grendell that day did not respond to Scene’s multiple inquiries. A source close to the prosecution did respond and confirmed that given the tenor and substance of the trial, the acquittal made no sense, legally, without the intercession of a third party.

Judge Grendell himself, in response to a series of emailed questions from Scene, confirmed his presence at the courthouse—he had been served a subpoena to appear—but said he had been sitting in the hallway, prepared to testify, when the judge dismissed the “baseless and frivolous” complaint.

“I never discussed the case with the trial judge or the appellate judges,” he insisted. “Any story alleging otherwise would be libel per se.”

(The Ashtabula Prosecutor’s office did thereafter file an appeal of the Rule 29 acquittal, but it was denied.)

***

It’s difficult to overstate just how skittish both official and unofficial sources were in discussing Grendell. In the small pond of Geauga County, home to just under 100,000 souls, the judge is a Great White Shark whose dorsal fin lurks in the communal periphery. Across multiple interviews, it was taken for granted that offering even gentle criticism might result in the loss of one’s job or a vengeful court summons.

Contempt of Court: We Need to Talk About Geauga County Judge Timothy Grendell
Provided photo
Take the parks.

Like other probate court judges in the state of Ohio, Grendell is empowered with the appointment of commissioners to the county parks district. Unlike most other probate court judges, he has used that appointment power an awful lot. Before he arrived from Columbus in 2011, the parks district had been overseen by a total of 13 commissioners since its founding in 1961. Since 2011, Grendell has appointed 16.

Under Grendell, opponents say, the parks district has abandoned its core mission of natural resource preservation to pursue recreation and construction projects. The board has expanded from three members to five and now includes businessmen whose companies routinely score lucrative park contracts. Public comment has been outlawed.

The advocacy organization Protect Geauga Parks (PGP) was formed in 2014 to agitate against this new direction and the fishiness therewith. Its members bought yard signs to promote their message, but quickly clocked the scope of Judge Grendell’s influence when they tried to distribute them.

“We had people tell us, ‘I really would like a sign, but my son works for jobs and family services, or my nephew works for the sheriff,’” Barb Partington, current president of PGP, told Scene. “People were afraid Grendell would fire them or retaliate against their family members. Just for having a sign in their yard! We now have a board of 12 people, and none of us have relatives who work for public services. Our houses are paid off. Our septic tanks are okay… If you’re going up against Timothy Grendell, you’ve gotta have nothing to lose.”

Responding to a question about PGP members and their fears of retaliation, Grendell wrote, “The members of that so-called park advocacy group falsely accuse me of many things and in each case, including the false claim contained in your question, they are wrong.”

Partington and others characterized the Parks as merely one weapon in Grendell’s arsenal. He is perceived as dangerous not only because he is a shrewd legal mind and a savvy political operator, but because he has at his disposal what one opponent called a “posse of underlings,” who help him settle scores and punish enemies from perches of authority that he directly or indirectly coordinates. Above all, multiple people said, he is a man who knows the rules well enough to bend them to his will, which is another way of saying he makes his own.

Nancy McArthur, the chair of the Geauga County Republican party, knows firsthand.

“For the record, I never called him mentally ill,” she said, referencing comments attributed to her in an email that made its way to Judge Grendell back in 2014, after which Grendell summoned her to court and threatened her with incarceration for contempt. “I did say he was a narcissist, and that Kasich appointed him in Geauga County to get him out of Columbus. But everyone knows that… And he’s been on the warpath ever since.”

The incident was roundly condemned at the time – the PD’s Brent Larkin called Grendell’s actions “astonishing and disturbing” – because McArthur was not a party to any case before the probate or juvenile court. Grendell was attempting to punish someone who’d privately spoken out against him.

“Geauga County isn’t Russia,” Larkin wrote in his column. “And downtown Chardon shouldn’t be known as the place that’s home to a Kangaroo Court.”

Grendell’s despotic vibe may seem risible from afar—his achievements in the McArthur case earned him the Popehat blog’s “Censorious Asshat of the Year” award in 2015—but his actions are not joking matters in Geauga County, where a culture of constant controversy has left many residents exasperated. In fact, beyond the fear of retaliation, weariness was the most common theme in our reporting. People are simply sick and tired of the Grendell drama.

Which is why everyone has May 3rd circled on the calendar.

The Republican Party is the only one that matters in Geauga County, where State Route 44 is both a physical and symbolic axis. In the bedroom communities to the west, places like Chesterland and Russell and Bainbridge, residents are by and large your typical white-collar fiscal conservatives. But out around the fairgrounds and farmland east of 44, it’s Tea Party Country, and that’s Grendell’s stronghold. In any case, just like in Cuyahoga County’s local partisan races, the primary election carries far more significance than the general.

This year, the hottest race in the sticks is for Geauga County Auditor. In one corner stands a man named Chuck Walder, the incumbent, a former businessman who has reformed the office and brought greater transparency to public spending after an embezzlement scandal under his predecessor in 2017. In the other corner stands a Larry Householder-aligned state rep who has recently made headlines for her sponsorship of such glittering legislation as the “divisive concepts” bill and the anti-trans “Save Adolescents From Experimentation” bill: Diane Grendell, the Judge’s wife.

***

Chuck Walder’s office, one floor below Judge Grendell’s on Chardon’s main drag, is spare. Other than his desk and a small conference table, it’s largely bereft of photos and plaques. Multiple easels line the perimeter and disclose, on their giant paper pads, evidence of recent team-building exercises and customer-experience brainstorms.

Walder says the bare-bones look is intentional, part and parcel of an important paradigm shift after the previous auditor.

“It used to be all about pomp and circumstance,” he told Scene. “It was about having your stickers on the gas pumps and your name on the sides of cars. I don’t care about any of that. What I care about is fixing the policies and procedures of this office to perform better for the residents of Geauga County.”

Unlike in chartered Cuyahoga County, where the finance chief is appointed by the County Executive, Geauga County’s auditor is the elected fiscal officer. The role oversees all county spending, payroll, tax assessments, and IT.

“It’s extremely detail-oriented,” Walder said, “and the vulnerabilities are obvious.”

Vulnerabilities? Scene wanted to know.

“Look, you’re setting people’s property values,” he said. “That happens on a panel with a treasurer and a commissioner, but the auditor is the main author of those valuations. That process has to be totally blind and based on fact. You can’t steer them based on political affiliation or who screwed you in the last election. And just think about IT.”

The “vulnerabilities” in IT, according to Walder, include unscrupulous snooping, vindictive internet outages, slow walking the purchase of urgently needed equipment, and so on.

Walder presents physically as Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston on an extreme diet. He is lean and goateed and speaks with an affable intensity that conveys, somehow, executive experience. He emerged from the private sector, having run a software company in Twinsburg from which he divested in 2005 to pursue a couple of personal hobbies: real estate development and collector car restoration. With his increasing spare time and his background in business, he applied for the position of fiscal officer in Russell Township, where he lived, and was appointed there in 2013. He quickly established a reputation as an honest and meticulous public finance guy and was approached to run for Geauga County Auditor in 2018. Not long after he pulled petitions, the previous auditor resigned in the wake of the embezzlement scandal—an IT employee had defrauded the county out of $1.8 million over eight years—and Walder was appointed as interim. He is now finishing his first full term.

Over the past four years, as Walder has tried to reform the office by creating standardized procedures and new transparency measures, he has faced one chief antagonist: Judge Grendell. Their escalating spats have come to dominate political headlines in Geauga County to such a degree that Walder now jokes there may be residents willing to vote against him just to be rid of the nonstop letters to the editor in the Geauga Maple Leaf and the Chagrin Valley Times. Grendell and his underlings have tried to make Walder a villain. Instead, they’ve made him a fighter. And just like the Geauga Parks advocates, Walder knows that to fight with Grendell is a dicey proposition.

“There’s no such thing as Judge Grendell losing,” Walder said. “He’s got frontal attacks and ancillary attacks. He uses his leverage with other people to get them to attack you, to wear you out, so you either surrender or you lose. And even if by some miracle you win, he still claims victory.”

The victory that Grendell has been most keen to promote in recent weeks was handed down by no less than the Ohio Supreme Court. That body ruled 7-0 in February that Walder had to reimburse Grendell for a number of disputed court charges, including a robocall and newspaper advertisements, which Walder had refused to pay on various grounds. Walder and others noted to Scene that Grendell’s so-called “public outreach,” paid for by the court, tends to increase quite a bit during election season, which makes it look much more like campaigning. Walder also told Scene that over the course of a series of one-on-one meetings related to the charges, Grendell threatened to hold him in contempt if he would not pay them.

click to enlarge Contempt of Court: We Need to Talk About Geauga County Judge Timothy Grendell
Provided photo

As the dispute made its way through the courts, an old Grendell pal, Bill Seitz in the Ohio legislature, sought to amend the Ohio Revised Code on the very issue. (Grendell denies that he nudged Seitz into doing so, saying that judges are not permitted to “lobby,” but everyone more or less spits out their coffee in hilarity at the notion of Grendell abiding by what’s permitted.) The amendment, on which Diane Grendell is listed as a co-sponsor, provides that judges need no longer offer evidentiary material (invoices, receipts, etc.) when seeking reimbursement from county auditors for court-related expenses. All that’s required now is a court order. The new amendment was the basis for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Grendell’s favor.

Walder told Scene that since the ruling in February, Grendell has already submitted court orders totaling roughly $60,000 and no longer provides evidentiary material of any kind. As auditor, Walder must now certify the court orders and provide payment. If he objects to them, he still must pay them. His only recourse is doing so “under protest,” a designation that removes his personal liability.

While Walder’s professional background has made him uniquely qualified for the auditor position, he said, it also made him uniquely enraged by the new standard imposed by the legislature and reinforced by the state’s high court.

“Do you think anyone who’s ever run a business would pay an employee’s bill without a receipt?” He asked. “I’m not here to judge what you’re doing. But if you give me a bill for two pickup trucks, you shouldn’t be buying a Lamborghini. If you spend a night in a hotel, you shouldn’t be giving me a credit card bill. I need the itemized receipt… As auditor, I’m just here to pay what’s proper. And the Supreme Court has now neutered my ability to do so. It has created a hierarchy where if you’re a judge, you’ve got a separate set of standards, and it doesn’t include the same transparency expected of everybody else. I find it morally and ethically wrong. It rubs against every fiber of my being.”

When Scene sent Judge Grendell a series of questions related to the auditor’s race, he responded with the subject line, “Answers to additional one-sided and ridiculous questions” and quickly specified that as a judge, he was unable to participate in political discourse.

“As a husband,” he wrote, “I fully support my wife.”

***

At 77, Diane Grendell is nine years her husband’s senior. Unlike Chuck Walder, she interpreted the recent Supreme Court ruling as an indictment of the current auditor’s performance. She called it a “spanking” in an interview with the Geauga Maple Leaf and cited it specifically in her decision to abandon the statehouse.

“Due to recent events (see State ex rel. Grendell v. Walder, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-211), it has become apparent that the Auditor’s Office in Geauga County is in need of real and serious leadership,” her candidacy announcement read. “It is very clear that where I can best serve the people of Geauga County now lies within its borders.”

What’s very clear to political observers is that with a newly drawn Democratic-leaning district and with disgraced former House Speaker Larry Householder out of the picture, Diane Grendell wouldn’t stand a chance in another statehouse race, (her recent spate of culture-war legislation notwithstanding.)

click to enlarge Rep. Diane Grendell - Ohio House of Representatives
Ohio House of Representatives
Rep. Diane Grendell
Years ago, in the 1990s, Diane Grendell served as a state rep but spent most of the 2000s as a judge on Ohio’s 11th District Court of Appeals. In 2019, she was appointed to fill the state rep seat vacated by Republican Sarah LaTourette. That appointment was made over the objections of the Geauga County GOP, who had put forward a South Russell councilman named Dennis Galicki.

Larry Householder had other plans. Housholder, of course, is the guy alleged to have orchestrated the largest bribery scheme in the state of Ohio’s history. He bypassed Galicki to select Grendell after a meeting with both Diane and the Judge. Diane Grendell voted on Householder’s House Bill 6, the corrupt FirstEnergy nuclear bailout, within hours of her swearing in, a vote that prompted everyone with two eyes to suspect a quid pro quo arrangement.

“It takes a third grader to figure this out,” Chuck Walder said. “And that’s no insult to a third grader.”

In 2020, when Diane Grendell ran to retain her seat, her campaign was flooded with Householder money. Nearly $400,000 of the $500,000 she raised in the race came directly from the House Republican Campaign Committee, which the FBI has alleged Larry Householder controlled to funnel resources to his political allies. Grendell defeated political newcomer Frank Hall, the Chardon high school teacher and football coach who famously chased student gunman T.J. Lane out of the school building in 2012. Grendell spent roughly $63 for every vote she secured. Hall raised $11,000, about $2 per vote.

Though Grendell professed to have a “heavy heart” when the HB6 scandal broke, she nevertheless refused to vote Householder out of office, another indication of her loyalties to Geauga County residents. She missed her first opportunity, claiming to have been stuck in traffic as the vote took place. And on June 16, 2021, when Householder was finally given the boot, Grendell was one of only three representatives who did not cast a vote.

Scene invited both Judge Grendell and Diane Grendell out to dinner for this story, but the Judge’s court administrator alluded to professional standards preventing a joint interview. Diane Grendell did not respond to additional outreach via her statehouse phone line. (That’s not entirely unexpected. Diane Grendell also skipped the PD/cleveland.com endorsement interview. And when the paper reached out to try to schedule a time that worked for her, she never responded.)

The mainstream of the Geauga GOP now largely backs Walder in the race, according to party chair Nancy McArthur. She referenced Walder’s recent improvements to the office but also said she and many others were aghast at the prospect of two Grendells in power.

“The top-of-mind concern is conflict of interest,” she said, reporting on conversations she’s had with Geauga County voters. “That’s number one. They don’t think it’s proper, and there’s no degree of confidence that she’d be independent. But number two is competency. She just has no background in finance or IT. Up until recently, she didn’t even have an email address.”

Others were far less charitable when asked about her qualifications.

Walder largely refrained from personal commentary, but did say he worried that under Grendell, the auditor’s office would return to its worst tendencies.

“Should it go that way, I believe this office would become very hierarchical,” he said. “The Grendell approach is dictatorial, retaliatory, and not necessarily about what’s best for everybody. I guarantee you their name will be back on the stickers.”

An attorney in Geauga County who spoke with Scene on background had a different fear, if Diane Grendell were victorious.

“Most of the people who work in that office,” he said, “or at least the people who are worth anything, would just quit.”

***

Judge Timothy Grendell won’t be quitting anytime soon, but opponents in Geauga County take some solace in the fact that his current term will be his last. In Ohio, you can’t run for a judicial seat if you are older than 70. But they remain baffled that a man who seems to flout rules, judicial ethics and human decency so often has avoided punishment.

“I think he understands exactly where the legal cliff is, and walks right up to the edge,” Barb Partington said.

“He knows the law, and he knows how to manipulate it with incredible efficacy,” another source said.

“He gets away with stuff that you’d think would be cause for discipline,” another agreed. “But he’s untouchable. It’s like he knows where the line is.”

“He’s a bully in the courtroom and a bully in his personal life. He’s a very intelligent bully, but he’s still just a bully,” said the Geauga County attorney.

“He does these bullying things that, whether or not he has the power to do, he does them,” said Nancy McArthur. “And it’s up to people to say no. No you can’t.”

“The only way his behavior will be changed,” said Chuck Walder, “is through public pressure.”

But as McArthur and others know, Grendell is generally the party applying pressure, not the one succumbing to it.

After responding to Scene’s questions for this story via email, Grendell sent a follow-up. He asked for the names of our sources who suggested Grendell intervened in the John Ralph trespassing case so that his attorney could prepare libel suits against them.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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