Former Ohio sheriff testifies he raised concerns over jail conditions but was powerless to reign in ex-jail director
"I never felt like the sheriff. I felt like I was just another supervisor," said former Sheriff Clifford Pinkney
By Cory Shaffer
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County's former sheriff testified Thursday that he tried to raise concerns about deteriorating conditions inside the county jail and the performance of ex-jail director Ken Mills to numerous public officials, including County Executive Armond Budish, before eight inmates died in a six-month span in 2018.
Former Sheriff Clifford Pinkney also testified that he felt powerless to reign in Mills, who he technically oversaw, because Mills frequently circumvented the sheriff to work directly with Budish and members of Budish's cabinet. Mills bragged that he would always have Budish's support, Pinkney said.
The situation was complicated by the fact that, under Cuyahoga County's charter government, Pinkney was appointed by the county executive rather than being elected by voters.
"I didn't want to get on the county executive's bad side because I wanted to keep my job," Pinkney said.
Pinkney said other government officials, including Mills, disrespected him throughout his tenure. He had no authority to discipline any of his own employees or control his own budget. To Pinkney, the charter essentially reduced what is supposed to be the most powerful law enforcement officer in the county to a middle-management position with little authority.
"I never felt like the sheriff," Pinkney said. "I felt like I was just another supervisor."
The testimony came at the end of the sixth day of Mills' trial on misdemeanor dereliction of duty charges that accuse him of negligently mismanaging the jail to the point where the facility violated safety regulations and inmates did not receive adequate health care, shelter or food in the run-up to a historic series of inmate deaths beginning in June 2018.
Mills is also charged with felony tampering with records and misdemeanor falsification charges that accuse him of lying to Cuyahoga County Council during a 2018 committee meeting about his role in blocking the hiring of nurses at the jail.
Budish hired Mills in 2015 to run the jail and expand it to house inmates from the city of Cleveland and its suburbs. The intent was to generate revenue for the county, according to multiple witnesses.
Prosecutors say Mills ignored warning signs from corrections officers and supervisors, jail nursing staff, MetroHealth medical staff who oversaw inmates' medical care, and others who said the jail was not ready for the project. Mills instead pushed forward with absorbing hundreds of new inmates, prosecutors said.
The jail became so overcrowded that inmates were sleeping on floors. It also became so understaffed that corrections officers were being forced into 16-hour shifts, assigned to watch over as many as four pods at a time.
At the same time, Mills sought to slash the jail's budget by reducing spending on medical care, nursing staff and food, testimony showed.
The conditions boiled over when inmates started dying in June 2018. Eight inmates died by December 2018.
Pinkney is among a string of current and former public officials who have testified in Mills' trial. However, Judge Patricia Cosgrove has pushed prosecutors to streamline their case and eliminate as many witnesses as possible. Prosecutors said they plan to rest on Tuesday, and that Budish will not be among the remaining witnesses they will call to testify.
Pinkney's testimony is key to the arguments being made by prosecutors and Mills' defense attorneys. Prosecutors have said Mills ran roughshod around Pinkney to control the jail. Defense attorneys have countered by saying Pinkney, as the sheriff, had the ultimate responsibility for what went on in the jail.
Pinkney testified that, shortly after Budish appointed him to become the county's first Black sheriff, he was asked to hire a new jail director. One early candidate, a supervisor at a county jail in Pittsburgh, fell through.
Pinkney, former public safety chief Frank Bova and a human resources official then interviewed Mills, who had never worked in a jail. Pinkney said he would not have recommended Mills because he lacked experience, but Mills ended up getting the job.
About a month later, Pinkney said he approached Mills and told him that he didn't like how Mills ended up getting the job. He added that, "if you ever try to undermine me, I'm gonna make you my project."
"I was trying to play the tough guy and be the big sheriff," Pinkney said.
Pinkney said Mills told him that Matt Carroll, chief of staff to former County Executive Ed FitzGerald and Budish's interim chief of staff, gave Mills a list of three jobs to pick from. Mills chose the jail director position.
Pikney said he and Mills frequently butted heads. Their relationship became more and more contentious and, at times, seemingly petty.
Pinkney said he and his chief deputy, George Taylor, had assigned spots in the Justice Center parking deck. They were marked by 8x10 pieces of paper bearing each man's name.
In 2018, Pinkney parked in his spot and noticed another spot beside his with a "large poster board." It read "Reserved for the Director of Regional Corrections." Pinkney said a sheriff's deputy who was assigned to the parking deck told him that Mills had ordered staff to make the sign and install it.
Mills walked by as Pinkney was talking to the deputy, but he did not acknowledge Pinkney. After that, Pinkney told the officer to take the sign down, he said.
Disagreements over the jail
Pinkney said the two also disagreed on larger issues related to the jail.
Pinkney pointed specifically to an email where he submitted his department's budget to Budish. The county executive responded by asking if Mills had agreed to and signed off on it.
Pinkney also cited a March 2017 incident where Mills interjected and went to Keenan to stop Pinkney's request for the county to hire two nurses for the Euclid Jail annex.
Mills' defense attorneys, throughout the trial, have pointed to an email Pinkney sent several weeks after Mills intervened. Pinkney wrote that it would be best to hold off on the two nurse hires until the Cleveland project was signed in the coming months.
Pinkney explained that he backed off the request because he realized that Mills and Keenan were going to fight it, and he wanted to wait until he had a complete picture of how many nurses the county would need to hire. He did not want to raise a fight with the budget director over two nurses at that time, only to have to come back and request money for more nurses later, he said.
Prosecutors also showed an email from 2017, after Mills tried to reorganize the staffing in the jail. Mills wanted to make the nursing staff report to him, and not MetroHealth's medical director Thomas Tallman.
Pinkney told Tallman to ignore the request. Mills wrote back that he wanted the nurses under him so he could manage budget cuts, and accused nurses of "playing games" when they raised concerns about the lack of proper medical care in the jail.
Pinkney said his authority was frequently undermined. He recited an incident where he wanted to fire a court security officer who slapped and choked a handcuffed teenager in juvenile court. But under the charter government, all hiring and firing decisions go through the human resources department, which answers to Budish.
Pinkney said he took surveillance video of the incident to a meeting where he told Budish he wanted the county to fire the deputy. Budish instead showed the video to his then-Chief of Staff Sharon Sobol Jordan, Director of Regional Collaboration Ed Kraus, former human resource official Douglas Dykes and HR attorney Ed Morales and "took a poll," Pinkney said.
The county chose not to fire the deputy, Pinkney said.
After that, Budish made Pinkney set up a "war room" consisting of Taylor, Dykes and Morales to decide any discipline over a 30-day suspension.
Prosecutors showed emails where Taylor had to remind Mills to include Pinkney on communications about incidents in the jail. The emails were sent after Pinkney learned of an assault inside the jail when he saw it in the news.
In another email from 2016, Pinkney sent Budish an updated budget proposal on the jail regionalization project. Budish replied and asked if Mills agreed with the budget and signed off on it, the emails showed.
Pinkney said the only time he felt like a real sheriff was when he went to meetings with the rest of the state's sheriffs.
"I was being treated like everybody else," he said.
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