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Ken Mills Trial Opens With Heated Debate: Who Was In Charge At County Jail?

Former Jail Director Ken Mills, seated furthest to the right, listens as his attorney gives an opening statement on Aug. 25, 2021 [Matthew Richmond / Ideastream Public Media]
Ken Mills sits at the defense table in Cuyahoga Common Pleas court.

Opening statements and the first day of testimony at the trial of former Cuyahoga County Jail Director Ken Mills focused on whether Mills is the right person to hold accountable for conditions inside the jail.

Mills was charged in 2019 with five counts related to overcrowding, insufficient medical care and several deaths at the jail. The first three charges cover alleged lies he told Cuyahoga County Council during a May 2018 appearance. Two additional counts of dereliction of duty are for his role overseeing the jail during 2017 and 2018.

Under state law, sheriffs are responsible for conditions inside county jails.

But, according to Matthew Meyer from the Ohio Attorney General’s office, Mills went around former Sheriff Clifford Pinkney to set jail policy with County Executive Armond Budish.

“Under the charter system, there’s really no sheriff in town,” Meyer said during his opening statement, referring to the new county government approved by voters in 2009 that ended the direct election of sheriff.

“Now, on paper, and you’ll see the paper, [Mills] answered to the sheriff,” Meyer said. “You’re going to hear testimony Ken Mills didn’t like the sheriff, didn’t respect the sheriff and didn’t think he had to follow the sheriff’s directions.”

According to Meyer, Mills was seeking a promotion from Budish, leading him to keep medical staffing low and not tell Budish that the county wasn’t ready to accept prisoners from Cleveland’s jail after it closed in 2018.

“Ken’s own staff warned him, ‘We’re not ready,’” Meyer said. “’People are going to get hurt.’”

Mills’ attorneys didn’t dispute there were problems at the jail and the medical department was short staffed. Lead attorney Kevin Spellacy said Mills hadn’t handled medical staffing since George Taylor became chief deputy in the sheriff’s department years earlier.

“Medical was no longer any part of Ken Mills’ duty other than to have to work with them,” Spellacy said during his opening statement. “He didn’t staff them. He didn’t budget them. He had to interact with them because they were part of the jail.”

According to Spellacy, the state had hoped to charge higher ranking officials but failed and settled for Mills instead. Specifically, the officials above Mills in the sheriff’s department were Chief Deputy George Taylor and Sheriff Pinkney. Spellacy also made a reference to people “over there on 9 th St.” who the state tried and failed to prosecute, presumably a reference to Budish.

“My client doesn’t control how many people are in the jail. He doesn’t get to control any mergers or acquisitions,” Spellacy said. “He does what he’s told. In this instance, they want the third guy in line, the outsider, to take the heat for the malfeasance of others.”

The only witness to testify on the first day was the jail’s former director of nursing, Gary Brack. Brack was fired by MetroHealth after publicly accusing Mills of blocking the hiring of additional nurses during a 2018 county council meeting.

Brack testified Wednesday to a few direct actions taken by Mills to reduce the role of nurses at the jail, including an email from Mills to the county’s former budget director, Maggie Keenan, that sought to block a request for more nurses at the county-leased Euclid jail.

“He told us in meetings, he felt there were too many nurses, that the nurses didn’t do anything,” Brack said.

On cross-examination, Spellacy focused on who had control over staffing at the jail, pointing out that Pinkney made the formal request for more nurses to the county executive’s office

“But when it didn’t work you seemed to like to blame Mr. Mills, no?” said Spellacy.

The trial is expected to last through next week. Originally, Budish was on the schedule to testify Wednesday. It's unclear when he might appear now.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.