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What Happened To The Cuyahoga County Jail? The Sheriff Won’t Say

Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney, right, leaves the lectern at county council with attorney Richard Blake. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney, right, leaves the lectern at county council with attorney Richard Blake.

Weeks from retirement, Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney arrived at a council hearing with his personal attorney and refused to answer almost any questions about the county jail system.

Pinkney’s attorney, Richard Blake, said he had advised his client not to answer a set of 53 written questions from Councilman Michael Gallagher, so as not to disrupt ongoing civil lawsuits and criminal investigations that have led to the indictments of county officials, jail leaders and corrections officers.

Over the next half hour, council members peppered Pinkney with queries and Blake batted down all but a few of them.

“We share your frustration,” Blake told council. “On behalf of Sheriff Pinkney, he has no intention to stonewall this committee.”

Blake said he told Gallagher in advance that his client would be unable to answer. He raised the possibility that the sheriff could answer questions in a closed-door executive session or at a later date.

“It’s not like you’re being ignored,” Blake said. “You are not. It’s a matter of timing. It’s a matter of what would happen to ongoing criminal investigations to speak publicly right now.”

To several questions, Blake replied that the sheriff did not know the answer. He confirmed to council that the sheriff had visited the county’s satellite jail in Euclid. Asked whether the county should aim to reduce the population of the overcrowded downtown jail to its rated capacity, Blake replied, “Definitely.”

But to many questions, there was no substantive response. Would Pinkney recommend any staffing changes in his office? What was his involvement in the county’s attempted regionalization of local jails? How can the county prevent abuse and suicide at the jail? Pinkney, through his attorney, declined to say.

Blake demurred when asked whether Pinkney would prefer the sheriff’s job to be elected or appointed by the county executive. Pressed on if he thought answering such a question would affect ongoing investigations, Blake said he did.

“In my opinion, the scope of what the county and the attorney general’s office are doing involves much more than what the people in this room may or may not be aware of,” Blake said.

Throughout the hearing, council members bemoaned their inability to extract answers.

“We’re trying to do our legislative oversight, and we’re being told that everything we ask is related to civil and criminal matters,” Councilman Scott Tuma said. “Well, I guess we should just turn the lights off and go home, because this was an absolute waste of time.”

Blake said that no one had instructed Pinkney to maintain his silence. He said the sheriff was not, to his knowledge, the subject of a federal or state investigation.

“Is he having conversations with federal and or state investigators?” Councilwoman Sunny Simon asked.

“I’m not in a position to answer that at all,” Blake replied.

“Then why isn’t your client answering questions while he’s still the sheriff for Cuyahoga County?” Simon asked.

“As I’ve stated, it’s our opinion that it will have a negative impact on ongoing criminal and civil investigations,” Blake said.

Blake, a former federal prosecutor, is an attorney with law firm McDonald Hopkins in the firm’s government compliance, investigations and white-collar defense practice group.

In 2009, Cuyahoga County Commissioners hired him and his firm at the time, Bricker and Eckler, to evaluate the financial impact of the then-ongoing FBI investigation into corruption in county government.

Gallagher, who chairs council’s public safety committee, said he understood Pinkney’s position, but was frustrated by his refusal to elaborate on a way forward at the jail.

“I think it would have been eye-opening if he could have been honest and answered,” Gallagher said. “But he has a right to protect himself and the county. He’s still an employee.”

Read the questions below. Mobile users can view here.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.