Jury convicts ex-Ohio jail director for mismanaging jail, lying to county council

The man who once ran the jail now faces a potential sentence of nine months behind bars


By Cory Shaffer
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland
        
CLEVELAND, Ohio — A jury on Friday found former Cuyahoga County Jail director Ken Mills guilty of negligently mismanaging the jail and lying to Cuyahoga County Council in the run-up to a historic series of inmate deaths in 2018.

The man who once ran the jail now faces a potential sentence of nine months behind bars.

Mills, 55, of Avon, was acquitted of third-degree felony tampering with records that carried a potential three-year prison sentence. Jurors found him guilty of two counts each of misdemeanor falsification and dereliction of duty.

Former Cuyahoga County Jail Director Ken Mills, right, after a jury found him guilty of four misdemeanor counts in the trial where he was accused of mismanaging the county jail and lying to county council.
Former Cuyahoga County Jail Director Ken Mills, right, after a jury found him guilty of four misdemeanor counts in the trial where he was accused of mismanaging the county jail and lying to county council. (Cory Shaffer)

Jurors reached their verdict shortly after noon Friday, following about six hours of deliberations.

Retired Summit County Common Pleas Court Judge Patricia Cosgrove scheduled the sentencing hearing for Oct. 8.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a statement after the verdict that Mills' reign over the county jail was plagued by inmates and corrections officers smuggling drugs into the jail, inmates being denied medical care and corrections officers assaulting inmates.

"With this conviction, Mills can think about his own potential time behind bars — and hope that it will run better than the hellhole he ran for Cuyahoga County," Yost's statement read.

Defense attorney Kevin Spellacy told reporters after the verdict that the felony charge was the "big ticket item" of the trial and Mills is relieved that he won't have a felony on his record after a three-week trial. He also said he expects to appeal the misdemeanor convictions.

Spellacy said the jail is no different now than when Mills ran it, so he argued the prosecution "sets a dangerous precedent." When asked if conditions in the jail should be different than before, Spellacy said he has heard "the same complaints about the same issues" for his entire career.

"I don't know if it's a matter of, after 32 years you get used to it, or if it's just what jail is," Spellacy said. "It hasn't changed much in the last 20 years."

The trial featured 28 witnesses over nine days of testimony that spanned three weeks in the Global Center for Health Innovation.

Prosecutors form Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost's office relied on more than two dozen witnesses who said Mills ignored warnings that the facility did not have enough corrections officers, nurses or space to implement a plan to expand the jail and house other cities' inmates in 2017 and 2018.

Eight inmates died over a six-month span in 2018, though one of those deaths occurred after Mills resigned as jail administrator.

They relied on inspectors — one from the state prison system and one from the county's inspector general's office — who toured the jail in late 2018. They found inmates had no access to running water, flushable toilets or clean clothes, and were being served food two years past its expiration date. Multiple inmates, including pregnant women, were sleeping on mats on the floors.

Furthermore, the jail was constantly being locked down and corrections officers forced into overtime shifts. Corrections officers were also skipping medical screenings for inmates after they were booked into the jail.

Prosecutors also relied on Mills' emails and testimony from other county employees to tell jurors that Mills did all of this to turn the jail into a money-making machine at the behest of County Executive Armond Budish. Mills, who had never worked in a jail or as a law enforcement officer, had his sights set on the chief of public safety position and applied in late 2017, months before the jail was scheduled to begin taking inmates from the city of Cleveland.

Mills' emails also showed he held up a request that then-Sheriff Clifford Pinkney and the jail's medical director, Thomas Tallman, submitted to the county for money to hire two nurses at the Euclid Jail annex.

Mills emailed the county's budget director after the request had been submitted and told her he did not approve of the hiring. A year later at a county council committee meeting about the medical situation in the jails, Mills told council he never blocked the hiring of nurses and denied those requests had come across his desk.

Spellacy and fellow defense attorney James McDonnell argued that Mills oversaw the day-to-day operations of the jail, but Ohio law specifically places each county sheriff in charge of the county jail so Pinkney was ultimately responsible for the jail's collapse.

Spellacy questioned why, if so many people sounded alarm bells about the conditions in the jail, no one above Mills including Pinkney, then-Public Safety Chief Frank Bova or Budish did anything to address them.

After the verdict, one of the jurors told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that jurors had an easy time convicting Mills of dereliction of duty. They were swayed by testimony about the third-floor holding cell that Mills set up to house Cleveland's inmates, which one corrections officer said was known among jail guards as "the dungeon."

The jury did not feel Mills caused any record to be tampered with, and struggled before deciding that Mills knowingly lied to council, the juror said.

The juror, a 51-year-old factory worker who asked not to be named, said the jury was disappointed that Budish did not testify.

"I would have liked to have had the prosecution ask [Budish] if it was under direct order to make them money at all costs, at the expense of these inmates," the juror said. "It seemed to be about the county making money, and unfortunately this was at the expense of the safety of inmates in the jail. And those inmates, you got to remember, our Constitution says you're innocent until proven guilty."

He also said the jury noticed that Pinkney and Budish's former chief of staff Earl Leiken signed agreements to speak with prosecutors. In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to use their statements to charge Pinkney or Leiken with a crime.

"Did we feel that Mills was acting alone and that he was solely responsible? No," the juror said. "But he was the one who was on trial, and unfortunately that's what we had to make our decisions based upon."
   
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